Technical Mastery and Trench Life: Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old

On December 17, three members of #teampeirs (another member saw the film on December 27) went to see They Shall Not Grow Old, the new film directed by Peter Jackson and produced by Jackson and Clare Olssen.  It was funded by 14-18 NOW and the Imperial War Museums. Jackson was given the charge to use only archival footage from the Imperial War Museums holdings and to use it in an innovative way.  Jackson, whose grandfather (a career soldier) served for the duration of the First World War with the 2nd Battalion South Wales Borders, has had a keen interest in the First World War all his life.  He even has an extensive collection of uniforms and printed material from the war. Each member of our team went into the film with high expectations and each of us left appreciative of the technological achievement of the filmmakers.  As an academic historian, archivists, and a technology wizard, we all have some opinions on where the film succeeded and where it missed the chance to teach a wide audience about the First World War.

The story

Jackson made a conscious choice to only use archival audio from veteran interviews and the skills of forensic lip readers to add dialogue to the film.  There is no contextualization to the images and audio. There is no narration, nor annotation. How does this impact the film?

R.C.:  As Alice Kelly has written, They Shall Not Grow Old is not a documentary, it is not an attempt to provide a critique on the Great War or provide a focused narrative within the larger context of the conflict. It is, rather, largely a collage of primary source materials organized as a narrative of the war through the lens of a white, male, British soldier who serves as a nameless avatar for all who served. Sound bites of oral histories from war veterans serve as the voiceover for the archival film and images, along with the newly recorded incidental audio. But there are no other voices in the film, no way finders to guide us when we are lost. Jackson himself said that he intentionally did not bring historians along as he had a story that he wanted to tell. In that, we are by necessity required to interpret the film based on our own understanding of the Great War.

Ian:  The technical aspects of the film are amazing and dominate my perception of it. The central drawback, in my opinion, to Jackson’s film is its storytelling. The film’s narrative arc is something we have seen before in many books and documentaries on the war. There is nothing new about this story of the Great War; our perspectives about the western front are confirmed and not challenged.

Amy:  Seeing what I knew to be silent film, but hearing words coming out of the mouths of the men was amazing.  Combined with more traditional audio effects, it was a very interesting way to add depth to the film and it was done well.  The archival audio from veterans’ oral histories is another matter – I wanted to know who was talking, what their stories were, when the interview was conducted, and so many other things that would normally shape how I understand an oral history.

Jenna:  If it had not been for Jackson’s appearances on screen before and after the main content of the piece, I think I would have felt significantly under-informed about its context. I thought his explanations and justifications for some of the choices he made in creating the film were helpful to my understanding of it – hearing from him allowed me to recognize that while I did not fully agree with Jackson’s decision to illustrate a single story in the film, this was a conscious decision made with significant reasoning behind it.

THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY-NOVEMBER 1916 (Q 950) Lieutenant Geoffrey H Malins, British official film cameraman, films British and French heads of state with their senior commanders during the Battle of the Somme. King George V, French President Raymond Poincare, General Sir Douglas Haig, the C-in-C of the British Army, and General Joseph Joffre, the C-in-C of the French Army, are leaving the Commander-in-Chief's Chateau, Beauquesne during the K... Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY-NOVEMBER 1916 (Q 950) Lieutenant Geoffrey H Malins, British official film cameraman, films British and French heads of state with their senior commanders during the Battle of the Somme. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

Jackson chose to tell the story of a white, British volunteer soldier deployed to the trenches of the western front – and only that story.  In the half-hour interview/explanatory short following the film, he admits as much, saying that there are just too many other stories to tell.  There is archival footage from other fronts, of colonial regiments, and women on the Homefront, some of which was restored by the filmmakers. Does Jackson succeed in telling one story and telling it well?

Ian:  Jackson uses the oral histories of veterans – recorded many years afterwards – to tell the story of the war.Through their eyes – edited by Jackson to fit his film –  we have a story of a universal veteran (who in this case is male, white, and British). I found that in trying to universalize these veterans’ experiences – a rather difficult thing to do – Jackson risks generalizing too broadly about how men reacted to the war. Did these men really share so much in their outlook towards their experiences?

Jenna:  In viewing the film, I found myself struck by and disappointed to find that Jackson chose to focus so tightly upon a single story. While the war was clearly a primarily male environment and the front lines were exclusively occupied by men, I found it somewhat jarring that throughout the near-constant narration of the approximately 90-minute film, not one female voice was heard. That said, I  think that Jackson does succeed in telling the single story that he set out to depict. Overall the viewer comes away with a strong impression of the wartime experience of a white, lower-middle-class British private on the Western front.

Amy:  I am not sure what all of the parameters or restrictions there were surrounding the film’s narrative, and while I noticed that the story was singular and generalized, I do think that he was successful in telling it.  I was actually more bothered when, during the afterward, we got to see some of the other footage that they had corrected and lightened.  They did the work, and then chose not to tell the stories of women working in munitions factories, the home front, or soldiers from other parts of the world.  That, to me, is a big misstep because it was important enough at the time to capture that footage, to make those films, so why isn’t it important enough now to tell those stories?

R.C.:  Largely, what the film is missing is historical context. Although I am not a Great War scholar, I have learned a great deal about the First World War through my work with the Jack Peirs project.  I’ve learned it isn’t enough to simply post a letter 100 years to the day as we have done. We have to provide commentary, develop maps and timelines that place Peirs in the larger context of the Great War, and provide explanations of the terms, names, and locations that Peirs writes about. We do not present Peirs’s voice as the singular voice of the Great War soldier; he was a man of a particular upbringing, education and class, and his experience of the war is by no means representative of what all soldiers went through. The attempt to universalize the soldier story in They Shall Not Grow Old through the use of standalone primary source materials is unfortunately ironic in that through the colorization and enhancement of the Imperial War Museums’ archival footage, that Jackson contributes to the practice of whitewashing history by only giving us fleeting glimpses of the soldiers of color from the colonies.

To be clear, I am not accusing Jackson of conscious racism, misogyny, or any other sinister intent behind the film. Jackson truly sees this film as a labor of love and respect. This personal connection enhances the artistry behind what the film is, but widens the gulf when thinking about this as a historical piece.

The technology

Let’s get into that “artistry.”  We all agree that the film is technically amazing and that the main draw, for us, was to see the western front on film with clean, clear lines, and IN COLOR.  Some people in the World War I historic community disapprove of colorizing 100-year-old photographs and film.  Did it work for you?

Amy:  It did.  I loved seeing the colorized film.  I think that seeing things in color does help to connect a modern audience to historic imagery.  One simple image that struck me was the sheer amount of mud on a mounted officer’s overcoat. He was riding, so it left me to just image the soldiers who were marching through it.  Something about seeing the contrasting colors of the mud on the coat made an impression. That is what the colorized film can do, that black and white cannot.

R.C.:  The film is a technical triumph. The colorization feels natural, the film is beautifully restored, and the digital inbetweening is rarely distracting and makes the scenes feel as if they had been shot yesterday. Through recreating sounds and voices and juxtaposing them onto the silent film, 100-year-old reels come to life in a way that doesn’t seem possible.

Ian: When the western front colorized – which Amy next to me called the Wizard of Oz moment – I let out a gasp in the theater. For the next twenty minutes I was absolutely entranced and overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the western front. Unfortunately, this sense of wonder at the voices of men chatting and singing as artillery thumped in the background eventually wore off. I became very conscious of the technology – front and center. The western front became a mashup of anecdotal trench stories leading up to a battle scene, which was intended to sum up all of the battles of the war.

Jenna:  With some experience as a film preservationist, I was particularly interested in the technical aspects of the production of They Shall Not Grow Old, and I wish this had been covered in a bit more detail in Jackson’s post-film commentary. Personally, I have no major problem with colorization, unless it is done badly!  The part that I found most thought-provoking was his assertion that had a contemporary filmmaker been presented with the choice between documenting the war on black and white or color film, there was no doubt that he would have chosen the color option (I’m paraphrasing here). Perhaps, as a filmmaker, Jackson is more qualified to speak on this topic, but I think most historians find it problematic to impress our ideas of what people from the past would have done, or thought, or felt. It led me to wonder about the identity of the person operating a camera in the frontline trenches of the First World War – was he in fact a professional filmmaker? Maybe he was a photographer, an artist, a journalist, or a soldier with no prior experience of film whatsoever.

National Archives Series: Photographs of American Military Activities, ca. 1918 - ca. 1981 Record Group 111: Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 - 1985

Lieut. Cooper, 26th Division, operating a movie camera, near Chateau Thierry, France, July 18, 1918.
Original Source: National Archives Series: Photographs of American Military Activities, ca. 1918 – ca. 1981
Record Group 111: Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 – 1985

The other technical aspect that I found very interesting was the visual editing, which Jackson discussed briefly. While watching, I noticed that in some sections the picture appeared in the center of an otherwise black screen, in a smaller box with rounded corners. As an archivist, I wished he had talked more about the original materials used to make the film.  I am curious about the format, size, and composition of the original films, as well as the process of digitization. Some of the originally-still shots were zoomed in upon or otherwise cropped to create pan effects and other forms of visual interest. To show the film in a way that is different from how its creator made it, represents another step away from the original. This leads to a lot more questions about original intent.  There has been a decent amount of discussion about the ethics of colorization, but I have not read quite so much about the other types of editing done on the film. One of the main draws of They Shall Not Grow Old was the restoration of the footage— it’s clear to viewers that what they are seeing has been stabilized, colorized, etc. But this is something that should not be lost in later viewings of this film or other edited films.

We have talked a lot amongst ourselves about the battle scene and the use of still images from The War Illustrated (a contemporary propaganda magazine published 1914-1918) as well as the juxtaposition of the faces of Tommies seen earlier in the film with images of dead bodies on the battlefield.  Thoughts?

R.C.:  To use scenes from a British propaganda piece, with no context as to where the images came from, as representative of the fight between British and German troops, didn’t necessarily bring anything new to the experience, nor did it line up well with the other aesthetic and pacing choices made in the rest of the film. It was, frankly, boring.

Ian:  Sadly, at what should have been the moment that had me sitting on the edge of my seat, I began checking my watch. The original footage of men in the trenches became a mashup of propagandistic periodical images that were then juxtaposed with images of happy healthy Tommies and bloody corpses in no man’s land. I actually had to look away because I found the depictions of the dead to be uncomfortably jarring and distracting from the words of the men themselves.

Amy:  I kept thinking about the sweep and feel of the battle sequences in Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and wondering what happened.  The use of The War Illustrated just seemed lazy to me.  It was like, “oh, we have these, let’s just use them” meanwhile thousands of still photos of the First World War wait in archives all over the world!  Again there was no context, so ignoring what could be a super interesting story about propaganda and patriotic publishing, we are asked to accept these stylized images at the climax of the film.  This after seeing all of this amazingly restored and enhanced actual footage.

Final thoughts

We all seem to agree with Oxford academic Alice Kelly that the film should not be considered a documentary.  The funding sources and the timing of its release make a strong case for the film to be considered a work of remembrance, a memorial to the British soldiers who fought and died on the western front.  Does this characterization see fair and is it a successful memorial?

Jenna:  I think this is absolutely one of the best ways to consider the film. I found it to be a strong, complete, and powerful work of remembrance for British soldiers on the Western front. It was clear the amount of effort, care, and consciousness that Peter Jackson put into its creation and overall I enjoyed the film.

R.C.:  I appreciate They Shall Not Grow Old on an artistic level. I applaud Jackson for his dedication to this project and his willingness to create a work of art that commemorates and memorializes British soldiers who served, fought, and died in the Great War. When I first heard about the project, I was excited to see how an accomplished director could bring the experience of the First World War to a larger audience; based on the number of people in the theater, it seems that others felt similarly. Jackson himself said his goal was to get people interested in the war, and to dig into their own family histories to see who among their relatives served, and to learn their stories.

My hope is the legacy of this film will be threefold: that more resources will be put towards restoring Great War archival primary source material, that it gets people interested in learning more about the war, and that it and sparks conversation of how we think of war and memory and the critical work of what it means to do history. I believe that we can hold things we disagree with in two minds, that we can critique the problematic lack of historical context and celebrate the underlying art that still exists. And while the men in They Shall Not Grow Old will remain forever young, I think the verdict is still out, as with any memorialization, if the film will stand the test of time.

Amy:  I respect the focus on the average soldier and the ins and outs of his daily experiences at war, but I think that Jackson and his team only took advantage of their technological innovation to reinforce the story of the western front experience, so while small details come to life and might make someone connect with the soldiers that they see on the screen differently, there are not layers and meaning being added to the story.  I do not know if it is successful as a memorial, but I do agree with Jackson and R.C. that it might spark interest in people to find out what their ancestors experienced, which is a good step.

Ian:  At the end of the film, Jackson insinuates that the war was something that everyone wanted to forget about afterwards. People – especially in Britain – have never forgotten about the First World War. His film, to my mind, is an expression of memory that places the individual soldier front and center. Similar to a war memorial, he personalizes the suffering of the war, only going further by giving it a face and a voice. Fundamentally, the film will lead to people asking more questions and wanting to learn about soldiers experiences in the war. And this is a great thing.

One thought on “Technical Mastery and Trench Life: Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old

  1. Dorothy Sullivan

    I appreciate the perspectives of professional historians and digital archivists. I thought your criticism of the single-story that Peter Jackson put forward along with the use propaganda pictures out of context. It seems odd that he had so much extra colorized film and sacrificed it for dramatic, but underwhelming pans across the pages of a propaganda magazine. After reading your comments, I wish he could have taken out those parts to showcase more of the colorized film and challenge the main narrative.


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