They Shall Not Grow Old

Peter Jackson, of ‘Lord of the Rings’ fame, has released a documentary called ‘They Will Not Grow Old’. It is about World War I using original film and audio records from the BBC and British Imperial War Museum.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
(From ‘the Fallen’, by Laurence Binyon, 1914)

The documentary was produced for the centenary of the end of World War I. It is an amazing technical achievement. Peter Jackson took old black and white film, colorized it and made it 3D. The soldiers’ stories are told by them, from interviews conducted by the BBC in the 1960’s . Since the original movies were silent, Peter Jackson hired lip readers to find out the soldiers were saying. He then hired actors, with the appropriate regional accent, to voice those words in sync with the movies.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.
(From ‘In Flanders Fields, by John McCrae, 1915)

Sample of Colorization

Sample of Colorization

The goal of the film is to illustrate the life of an average infantryman in the war. Peter Jackson says he colorized the films because although film was only black and white at the time, the soldiers lived their life in color. You learn what life was like in the trenches. In living color you see ‘trench rats’. From the movie: “Wherever there was a grave or a body, there were rats. They were all big fat ones and we knew where they got the fat from… They used to feed on the dead.”

Or lice. Again from the film: “…lice was a dreadful problem. They were funny little things, like little monster sort of things, with six legs, and they used to feed ten times a day.”

But death replied: “I choose him.” So he went,
And there was silence in the summer night;
Silence and safety; and the veils of sleep.
Then, far away, the thudding of the guns.
(From ‘The Death Bed’, by Siegfried Sasson, 1916)

Other aspects of trench life are documented. Water. Cigarettes. Brothels. Mud. Describing the mud a soldier commented: “I've seen men sinking into the mud and dying in the slime.” Imagine drowning in mud.

This is the hymn of mud-the obscene, the filthy, the putrid,
The vast liquid grave of our armies. It has drowned our men.
Its monstrous distended belly reeks with the undigested dead.
Our men have gone into it, sinking slowly, and struggling and slowly disappearing.
(‘from At the Somme: The Song of the Mud’, by Mary Borden, 1917)

Humor was used to pass the time. A soldier told this story: “They (the Germans) put up a sign - "Gott mit uns. God is with us. And we put a sign up in English -"We've got mittens too!"

Peter Jackson was unable to show any actual fighting as World War I vintage camera equipment was unable to capture combat. He included descriptions of combat. Immediately prior to an attack one soldier wondered, “I heard soft voices talking to one another quietly, and I wondered - how many are going to live to see the sun rise?” Another describes the attack: “Machine gun bullets came at us like hailstones.  I looked round and people were dropping all round you. I mean, they just faded away on either side of you.” A soldier gets wounded: “I suddenly found myself with a terrible pain in my left hand …,and I found a big hole in it.” And: “First wave were all absolutely wiped out. Everybody was either killed or wounded.

Because you died, I shall not rest again,
    But wander ever through the lone world wide,
Seeking the shadow of a dream grown vain
            Because you died.
(From ‘Roundel’, by Vera Mary Brittain, 1918)

When the movie ended, the audience was dead silent. For thirty minutes after the credits, Peter Jackson explained how the movie was made. Virtually everyone stayed to watch. The movie is only shown on selected dates in selected cities. You can look at its schedule and learn more about the movie on its website -

War is horrific, Over 20 million died in World War I and many more millions wounded. This movie is a way to respect and honor those who served. Peter Jackson dedicated the movie to his Grandfather, William, who died young of his wounds after the war. Ironically, William Jackson fought alongside J.R.R. Tolkien, at Gallipoli. I highly recommend this film.