Clerestory

They Shall Not Grow Old

October 02, 2019

On the plane home I watched They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s documentary about World War I. Though the title was vaguely familiar, it was not until I saw the colorized footage that I remembered having heard about it. It focuses on the British experience of the Western front, though it does not announce this too clearly at the start.

Nonetheless it is a powerful documentary, and I highly recommend it. It brings the grim reality of WWI to life, by cleaning up and colorizing the images, as well as fixing the jerkiness associated with lower frame rates. This makes the scenes look thoroughly lifelike, as if they had occurred in the recent past, rather than over a century ago.

The end result is haunting, a bit reminiscent of The Great White Silence, in how vivacious and optimistic the doomed men at first appear. But there is some a dissonance between the recorded voiceover and the footage, because (by definition) the voiceover was recorded by the survivors. The footage, unsurprisingly, shows a vast quantity of the dead.

I found it a little disappointing that the documentary lacked all specificity about which battles or years the narration described. Jackson wanted it to be an overview of what life was across the Western Front, and in that sense it succeeds. He apparently said enough books had been written on each battle.

But especially after the opening comments, to the effect that every year was drastically different from every other, I could not help wishing for a bit more detail about what part of the war was being described. One soldier said that a soldier from 1914 could not have recognised 1917, but it was never explained precisely what had changed, beyond implying that they had gone in with high spirits and faced a very different (though not always negative) reality. He seemed to be saying something much stronger than that, but the documentary does not delve that deeply.

This risks giving the impression that the experience was fairly uniform. On the other hand, the documentary describes and depicts many details that are glossed over in more traditional accounts like The Face of Battle or The Storm of Steel.

One thing that fascinated me was how aware the British were of which specific Germans they were fighting at any given time. They liked the Bavarians, and considered the Saxons almost British, but greatly disliked the Prussians—as apparently did Germans from other regions. I would not have expected them to know much at all of the individual soldiers’ origins, but I suppose regiments were organised by region, and there were enough bilingual soldiers that information could be got from POWs.

The total refusal of civil society to discuss the war in its aftermath was also quite interesting. I would have not expected there to be such silence, especially given how much weight it is given in current British discourse.

It had not occurred to me that returning veterans would have been despised, or that nobody would have been interested in their accounts. It was also interesting how uniformly they felt that the Germans wanted the war to end, and how deflating, and in some cases disappointing, the end of the war was for some of the British soldiers.


I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.