They Shall Not Grow Old

Jan 30, 2019

Peter Jackson makes another conflict real and unforgettable.

They Shall Not Grow Old

Grade: A-

Director: Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings)

Screenplay: Documentary

Rating: R

Runtime: 1 hr 39 min

By: John DeSando

"I gave every part of my youth to do a job." The first phantom voice.

Peter Jackson’s documentary They Shall Not Grow Old is about as good as restoration will ever get. Digitally cleaned and enhanced, each frame is a work of art. It captures the horror of The Great War while at the same time deeply respecting the combatants, whose voiceover montage lends a poignancy that fully parallels the glory of the sacrifice they made on The Western Front from 1914 to 1918.

Jackson colorizes some of the footage, which he gleaned from the Imperial War Museum, the BBC, and other sources, and adds 3D depth to create an immediacy rarely seen in documentaries. From my perspective, neither technique is necessary and in both cases a distraction from the stark black and white impressions.

In other words, what works so well for me is the immediacy of the imagery and the candor of the combatants. To see men bound for death offer gallows humor in a subtle casualness is to witness the valor of soldiers who fought for causes even they didn’t fully understand.

Amid the closeups of weary but often upbeat soldiers and resident maggots and fat rats is a restoration that puts the audience in the trenches of the heroic players. Only by meticulous restoration does Jackson convince us that the “war to end all wars” was as horrible as reports had told.

The commentary by veterans into their 60’s is even more convincing than the stark images. Their reflection about the neglect of their heroism when they returned home is a powerful indictment of those whose only discomfort now is a lumpy lounger. As we listen to the rollicking period song over the credits, we become aware that Peter Jackson fully understands the ironies of annihilating conflict. Yet, Afghanistan and Syria remind us of mankind’s continuing love affair with horror.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at