They Shall Not Grow Old

Lucy reviews Peter Jackson’s moving, surprising new film about the Great War

Best known as the Oscar-winning director of the ‘Lord of The Rings’ trilogy, Peter Jackson has a new film in cinemas now, as we approach the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. I was lucky enough to catch it while it was at the DCA. 

‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ is a tribute to his grandfather, Sgt William Jackson, who fought in the First World War, and to all those who served in the Great War of 1914-18.

Giving a voice to many

Peter and his team have taken archive footage from WW1, the first major conflict to be captured on film. They’ve taken around 600 black and white, silent films, many of which were previously unseen, and completely remastered them – colourising each film, slowing it down, and adding 3D. They also brought in lip readers to accurately gauge what the men in the images were saying when they were filmed, and have dubbed over the original film, giving the soldiers a voice. Background sounds have been added, too, so it’s as if a sound recordist had been present on the day the films were shot.

Interviews given by those who actually fought in the war accompany the footage. Initially commissioned as a 30-minute documentary, it now runs to 99 minutes, and focuses on the Western Front – showing men at war, as well as at rest and play during respite from the fighting.

Colourising the film makes it seem so recent – a far cry from the grainy, black and white images which seem from so long ago. It wasn’t a black and white war, and this, combined with telling the story from the point of view of the men who were actually there, reminds us this really happened, to real people, and affected real families.

The result is amazing, and surprising! Firstly, the age of many of the troops – lots were just laddies, aged 14 or 15. And many interviews reveal surprisingly positive memories – of camaraderie, a common purpose, strong patriotism. Great respect is shown and a real effort to give everyone a voice, including those who didn’t live to tell the tale. Of those who did, many felt not relief at the Armistice, but a feeling of anti-climax. What now?

The reality of war

This film carries a 15 certificate, and it is difficult viewing in places. Trench warfare was brutal, with weapons devised to inflict gruesome injuries. Trenches would fill with water in poor weather, resulting in grim conditions. Trench foot was rife, and mud was everywhere. Lice and rats were commonplace. Tanks, craters, gas, barbed wire, machine guns and bayonets meant that death was part of everyday life, and many men explain how they became desensitised, to cope with the horror of it all.

But even in – or perhaps because of – these conditions, positives were to be found. Friendship, and humanity, in the midst of the most appalling inhumanity; when prisoners were taken, they were pitied, not vilified. And on a lighter note, the film is a testament to the power of a cuppa to cheer even the most frightful of circumstances, even if the boiling water came from a water-cooled Vickers machine gun!

They Shall Not Grow Old is an amazing achievement. It presents a balanced picture of the Great War, in the words of those who were there. War is shown in all its horror, but lighter moments are shown too. It charts the course of the war, from fresh-faced lads lining up to enlist and ‘have a go at Jerry’, to stalemate on the Western Front, to coming home and adjusting to life after being demobbed.

Peter Jackson received no fee for this film; for him, it’s a labour of love. It will be shown on the BBC soon, have a look at some footage by the BBC here.  The title comes from Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’; like the film, the title may be slightly modernised, but remains 100% authentic.


“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.”


Image credit: WingNut Films with Peter Jackson. Original black and white images IWM.

Read Lucy’s next post about the animals of WW1 

Lucy Crichton

Fiction Editor Lucy is always on the look-out for the very best short stories, poems and pocket novels. As well as sourcing enjoyable content, she enjoys working with our established contributors, encouraging new talent, and celebrating 155 years of 'Friend' fiction!