They Shall Not Grow Old: the First World War on film

08 Nov 2018

5 mins
They Shall Not Grow Old (soldiers)
They Shall Not Grow Old (soldiers)

Director Peter Jackson's landmark, archive-led First World War documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, had its premiere recently at the 62nd BFI London Film Festival. Below, our reporter Ben offers his own insight into the bold, eye-opening new look at history.

The first thing that is likely to strike you when you finish watching Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old is how unlike any other war documentary it is. It is more personal, more immersive and without a doubt more touching than anything else I have seen of its kind. In school, we are taught of the suffering of the soldiers during the Great War, but with this film, we are taken with them.

The documentary explains terrible truths, such as the age of many of the boys that went to war - around 250,000 underage troops (under 19) managed to sign up. Hopefully, this will help the younger generation to form a greater understanding of the harsh realities of the war and to empathise with those that suffered. It would be surprising if the film was not used as a teaching resource in the future, although some believe that it is too disturbing for younger viewers (images of mutilated bodies appear without much warning). It has received a 15 certificate from the BBFC.

There is no narrator; only audio recordings of men that had fought. They joke around and recount anecdotes of their time in the trenches. This only makes the film more poignant, and harshly contrasts the gruesome images shown and shocking stories told. It also depicts the community spirit that formed between the troops. Many of them explained how much fun they had while training and the high overall morale that slowly faded as the war went on.

It is more personal, more immersive and without a doubt more touching than anything else I have seen of its kind.

They Shall Not Grow Old has gained huge recognition for using incredible new digitalisation technology. For a while, filmmakers have taken old black-and-white footage and colourised it, but Jackson and his team have taken this even further. The footage is brought to life to such a degree that it could almost pass for modern day material - it is this that makes the film so touching. Every detail on every soldier's face is revealed to tell a brand new story: a story of human beings. On top of this, the footage has been dubbed with lip-reading of the boys at war. Being able to hear what individual men were saying adds yet another personal element to the documentary; these were real people, many of whom gave their lives, even if they didn't all know what for.

I could not recommend watching this documentary enough. It's as insightful as it is harrowing, as entertaining as it is moving, and above all tells a story well known in a way that has not been done before.

If you're looking for great activities that will engage your pupils with archive film or photography, check out the Into Archive Film Action Pack: a resource designed in association with 14-18 Now, an arts programme designed to commemorate the centenary of WWI.

First World War films at the Into Film Festival

It's also not too late to book free tickets for the 2018 Into Film Festival, which kicked off this week with a simultaneous launch event across the UK. In particular, check out the Visions of Europe festival strand, which includes nationwide screenings of A Journey's End; an adaptation of the famous stage play set amid the trenches of Northern France in 1918.

You can also explore our World War I film list for further titles to use in the classroom and help you discuss this historic event on its centenary.

Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old is in cinemas nationwide from 9 November 2018, and is preceded by a special pre-recorded Q&A with Peter Jackson (3D and 2D). The film will also premiere on on BBC Two on Armistice Day (Sunday 11 November) at 9.30pm, and will be released on home entertainment platforms later this year.

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