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With: n/a
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Peter Jackson
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing war images
Running Time: 99
Date: 02/01/2019

They Shall Not Grow Old (2019)

4 Stars (out of 4)

War Mourn

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Peter Jackson's assembly of restored footage, colored, rendered in 3D, and with added sound effects, voices, and narration, is an astonishing achievement, a direct distillation of war itself.

In They Shall Not Grow Old, footage from a century ago and interviews recorded decades back recount what it was like to fight for the British Infantry against the Germans during the First World War. Enthusiasm and patriotism ran high as men ages 19-35 enlisted, and even younger teens lied about their ages to join. Basic training is shown as hard work, but the men get in shape and prepare for battle.

The actual war, however, is something else: a harrowing, subhuman existence wallowing in disease-ridden trenches, starving, and dealing with everything from rats to mud. An actual attack is described as noise and chaos, death and mayhem, with no time to process anything. When it's over, nothing feels the same and no civilians can possibly grasp what actually happened.

Oscar-winner Jackson — whose own father served in World War One — provides a filmed introduction, explaining how the project came about, which is helpful and necessary. Then, They Shall Not Grow Old, starts gradually, with the small-frame, flickery, black-and-white footage we're all familiar with. Then, the various elements kick in and after a while, like The Wizard of Oz, it emerges in color, and suddenly the men in their uniforms feel like real people, and not just faded shadows.

Jackson chooses not to show any dates, names, or places. There are no characters to follow, and no story arcs or subplots. It's just one immersive dive into a particular, specific experience, the trenches of the Western Front.

The spoken narration by actual soldiers, mainly recorded back in the 1960s and 1970s when memories were fresher, does most of the work, but the movie's 99 minutes comes closer to understanding the entirety of war than just about any other film, from the initial burst of excitement, to the indescribable horrors in the thick of it, to the heartbreakingly anticlimactic, lost, empty aftermath.

It's honorable to the memories of the men who fought, but critical of the act of war itself. One ex-soldier asserts that there should never, ever be another war, and when They Shall Not Grow Old ends, audiences will agree.

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