I had a chance to do a little catch-up this weekend and enjoyed something in my movie queue for a while now: They Shall Never Grow Old.
I honestly can’t recall where I’d heard of it before, but I’m sure the combination of Peter Jackson, World War I history, and something or another caught my attention. I watched in two sittings and finished with Peter Jackson’s commentary on the making-of process.
I think some of my recent motivation was three-fold. First, 1917 was just released and I’m kind of excited to see how it turned out. Second, I’ve always been interested in the intersection between J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis (and their contemporaries) and service in/exposure to the Great War. Lastly, my current work in progress lifts some combat experiences most closely drawn from WWI, so source material is keenly on my mind.
The film was produced as part of the centennial of the armistice, and is based on over 100 hours of original film, some still format artwork from magazines of the period, and over 600 hours of recorded interviews with WWI veterans. The film was amazingly restored in quality and much of it colorized (the commentary does a brilliant job of describing that challenge!) Jackson and his team also needed to distill the audio and make it a coherent story, and they chose to follow the general process of young British men joining the Army, processing through training, joining the front, some examples of trench raids/combat, and a little bit on the return home. There is no historical narration or real commentary other than the opinions of the soldiers on their lives and conditions.
Speaking as a veteran who deployed but did not see active combat (Africa), I found their stories to be beautifully honest, frank, and authentic. A lot of mundane life stuff. At first glance, many of their circumstances feel awful, but I can appreciate how one becomes numb to living conditions and falling into routine, so that felt true to my own understanding. Some of the film is graphic, and it was hard for me sometimes to process emotionally. You see violence in movies and sometimes on the news, but I had to stop and tell myself “That image, that shot of horses or men…that really happened. That’s a real trench, in a real Belgium, with real men who had hopes and dreams and concerns and problems and friendships and whatnot, and you just watched them get hit by artillery. Feel something.”
I found the film to be better than a narrated historical documentary, but also understand it’s not a cinematic film like 1917 or War Horse or Wonder Woman. That certainly wasn’t the intent! But if you like the period and want a story that captures veteran’s experiences, I think it’s a great opportunity, especially for writers.