Review: They Shall Not Grow Old


In the 1950 and 60s the Imperial War Museum and the BBC recorded oral histories of ordinary Tommies and their experiences in the Great War from 1914-18. From enlistment to training, to the horrors of the mud, the blood, the gas, the stench and the filth of the trenches, and the somewhat hollow homecoming, their stories are both riveting and revolting.

To bring these these stories to life, New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson combines their voices with film from the IWM vaults, much of it never seen before. His techniques are both a marvel and at times questionable. When much of the footage was originally shot the frame rate of hand-cranked film was somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 16 frames per second instead of the now standard 24 FPS. To compensate, computer software was utilized to create interpolated frames. It smooths out the action and removes the herky-jerky style we have come to expect of motion pictures from the silent era but it means that for every minute of real film on screen there are about 20 seconds of computer created imagery. To top that off all of the film shot in France has been colorized and for theater audiences, some of it stereoscoped into 3D. I viewed the film as it was presented on the BBC on Armistice Day and the re-translation back to 2D is unsettling at times.

Because the film is silent, Jackson’s team of foley artists and ADR technicians brought in lip readers and actors with the appropriate regional accents to give voice to individuals seen talking on film. The colorization is often a best-guess proposition. Some colors are too stark, others are too muted. But its primary purpose seems to be to replace the darker and undefined representation of blood in black and white with a more shocking-to-the-senses red, and in that it is successful.

Criticism from some modern historians has been predictable to the point where it’s laughable. Yes, it’s awfully white, awfully British and awfully male. But it is not meant to be a comprehensive history of a four-year war. It is a snapshot of the war as seen through the eyes of ordinary soldiers, most of whom went in way too young and way too naïve. The great triumph of the film is that the voices are never married with pictures of the speakers. In this way they become, in a sense, a single entity. And because they were all well into their sixties and seventies when they were interviewed, their disembodied voices does not allow us to see them as old survivors, but forever young and still in the fray.

The title is a reworking of a line from the Laurence Binyon poem, For the Fallen, which is used in Remembrance ceremonies throughout the remnants of the Empire:

They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

Appropriately enough, the final frame of the film, the copyright for the Imperial War Museum, reminds you that the film is protected, not by British law, but by the laws of the United States. Sic transit Imperium.

They Shall Not Grow Old will be released in the United States for showings on December 17th and 27th through Fathom Events and Warner Brothers Pictures. For residents of the United Kingdom it is available on the BBC iPlayer until Sunday, November 18th.

There are 11 comments.

  1. Gary McVey Contributor

    A wonderful post, EJ, a fine bit of film publicity, and an honorable remembrance of the enormity of the violence and lost life. Sometimes that’s concealed by our past experience of old, flickery, jumpy movies of strangely ghostlike, gaunt men who seem to have nothing in common with us.

    • #1
    • November 13, 2018, at 11:09 PM PDT
  2. Fred Cole Member

    Okay, so, I had heard an interview with Peter Jackson about this two months ago … and then promptly forgot about it.

    I had not seen the trailer before (thank you for posting it!).

    That trailer is 59 seconds long. Watching it, here by myself, I said “Jesus Christ” out loud twice in 59 seconds.

    I’ve been watching war footage all my life. Never before have I seen WW1 footage look like that. That is incredible. It brings it to life in a way I’ve never seen before.

    I have already contacted UK people I know to see if they can rip me a copy somehow. 

    • #2
    • November 14, 2018, at 3:42 AM PDT
  3. Fred Cole Member

    I want to add that, having heard just a tiny bit about the technical stuff that went into converting that footage, that this is just the beginning. And they can take the Jackson Process (a term I’ve just coined) and feed other footage through it.

    There is so much film from that time period, war footage, street scenes, and on and on, that it’s hard to connect as a human because of the lack of color, the frame rate, artifacts, etc., etc., and I’d love to be able to see it be restored in a way that people can use it to connect to the past.


    • #3
    • November 14, 2018, at 3:50 AM PDT
  4. Fred Cole Member

    Take this street scene for example:

    Someone has added sound to it. But imagine running it through the Jackson Process and what would come out at the other end.

    • #4
    • November 14, 2018, at 3:50 AM PDT
  5. The Reticulator Member

    The Fathom Events web site says tickets will go on sale Friday “at and participating theater box offices.” I don’t know what that last phrase means, or whether it’s going to be shown any place near me, but I suppose I can find out on Friday. (I never heard of Fathom Events before.) 

    It looks like it would be worth going to see. Thanks for telling us about it. 

    • #5
    • November 14, 2018, at 7:56 AM PDT
    • Like
  6. Steve C. Member

    I’m of two minds. It’s a brilliant technical achievement. But it also substitutes someone’s artistic choices about what colors to apply. Granted the original films were subject to choices made by the camera operator, film developers and editors. The sound work, for me, is more intriguing and appropriate. That’s art.

    Developments like this always remind me of Ian Malcolm’s comment. “Just because they can doesn’t mean they should.”


    • #6
    • November 14, 2018, at 8:00 AM PDT
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  7. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill Post author

    Steve C.: Developments like this always remind me of Ian Malcolm’s comment. “Just because they can doesn’t mean they should.”

    That’s the rub. But amazingly, this kind of stuff has been going on almost as long as there’s been film.

    In 1967 MGM was still milking Gone With the Wind and re-released it in “70mm wide screen” format. But since it was shot in the traditional ratio of the time a lot of image had to be eliminated. Jackson had to make those reframing decisions as well.

    Away from the battlefield Jackson chose to present the archive footage “as is,” scratched up, jerky and in its original, uncompensated for frame rate. The result is that you say “wow” when the computer magic kicks in.

    But I take the same view of this as my photoshopping gig here at Ricochet. As long as you acknowledge the fact of the alteration, that you’re not trying to pass something off as being the original, it’s within the realm of the acceptable.

    • #7
    • November 14, 2018, at 9:16 AM PDT
  8. Aaron Parmelee Member

    I’ve seen it. It’s pretty good. The colorized parts can be a bit odd, and the voices that were added to the footage are too crisp.

    It’s full of footage that I’ve never seen before, and the narration (interviews) of the veterans is excellent.

    • #8
    • November 14, 2018, at 9:55 AM PDT
    • Like
  9. Ontheleftcoast Inactive

    Blogger Borepatch posted this for Veteran’s Day

    One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.

    — J.R.R. Tolkien, forward to The Lord of the Rings 

    A hundred years is a long time if the hundred years is the 20th century. The Great War didn’t end war, nor did the even bigger cataclysm of 1939. But that didn’t end things either – the long, strange twilight conflict of the Cold War had its own body count which is all too easy to forget when standing in the shadows of the twin World Wars.

    That’s a lot of history to pack into what amounts to a single lifespan. The history is so big as to overwhelm the human. Actually, that’s a fitting metaphor of the Great War. But the human story is the one we should try to see. And so imagine yourself in Tolkien’s shoes. Every single one of your childhood friends were killed, except for one.

    We (justly) scorn the appeasement in the run up to the second war, But we really don’t understand it because we’ve lost that human perspective. A generation was butchered and damned. A few passed echos of that to us in writing – Tolkien, Hemingway, Robert Graves. The futility of the Western Front is on plain display in A Farewell To Arms.

    On this centenary of the silence that fell on Flander’s fields, remember Tolkien’s mates, all save one butchered. And remember that he carried that to the end of his life. That – multiplied ten million times – was the war.

    A co-blogger of his commented:

    The poem I posted earlier today [Laurence Binyon’s For the Fallen] was written in 1914. The killing had only just begun.

    It was an unimaginable loss. The British lost approximately 2% of their population, most of that young men. Try to think what it would do to this country if we had lost over 6,000,000 men in the five years after 9/11.

    Consider what the loss of that manpower, inventiveness, and fatherhood did to create Europe’s problems today. Or, for all its postwar accomplishments, Japan’s.

    Some have argued that China’s rise today is due in part to its having preserved its manpower by having mostly sat out WWII. That argument is shaky; it’s true only if “sat out” means “having lost 14,000,000 or so out of a population of about half a billion” after the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931 and China as a whole in 1937, which is at least comparable to British losses. Not to mention many tens of millions killed or starved under Mao.

    • #9
    • November 14, 2018, at 9:58 AM PDT
  10. The Reticulator Member

    EJHill (View Comment):
    But I take the same view of this as my photoshopping gig here at Ricochet. As long as you acknowledge the fact of the alteration, that you’re not trying to pass something off as being the original, it’s within the realm of the acceptable.

    Yeah, I was going to ask how a guy who photoshops for a living (not that I understand what you do for a living) can complain about what they’ve done. As a person who is often looking at minute details of old maps or photos to find meaning in them, I don’t mind this sort of thing, especially when it’s done well.

    What I do mind is people who produce documentary dramas and distort an old story to fit the sensibilities of modern narratives. With rare exception I don’t read historical fiction, because I don’t want my mind polluted with false information that I have to clean out again. But fixing up old film? That’s great. I’m not afraid of it putting false images in my head. 

    I have some photos of my great-grandfather’s homestead that my grandfather had colorized around 1940. I think he responded to an ad offer and tried it out. He distributed the resulting prints to the relatives, and I have a complete set of those as well as the original B&W medium-format negatives. Of course the colors weren’t right, and he didn’t do it again. The only reason I can think of his including a photo of a bed of peonies in the set was that he wanted to recapture the colors. He was always interested in plants and horticulture, so he’s probably the only person who would have bothered. But it didn’t work. 

    So, yes, some guesswork is needed. But the trailer suggests that it was done very well.


    • #10
    • November 14, 2018, at 10:11 AM PDT
    • Like
  11. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill Post author

    Even when there’s no guess work layering color over shades of gray results in unnatural colors.

    Here’s an example:

    Natural color on the left and a desaturized image on the right.

    A painted layer of color in Photoshop with a palette chosen from the original.

    The painted layer applied over the black and white: acceptable but clearly inferior to the original. The breadth of colors simply aren’t there.

    • #11
    • November 14, 2018, at 10:58 AM PDT