Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old is a documentary using 100 year old film clips of World War I (1914-1918) taken from the archives of the Imperial War Museum. Also, it uses the voices of the British soldiers who fought in WWI to narrate the film. These voices were recorded in hundreds of interviews with the soldiers done twenty or more years after the war.
Jackson had the raw footage 'remastered' so that it is now as detailed as a modern film - the faces and reactions of individual soldiers are crystal clear and allow us to look at them not as distant, barely discernible humans but as full-fledged members of our shared humanity.
Jackson is not interested in the history of WWI, its origins and causes. There is no preamble giving the movie context. Instead, Jackson takes the viewpoint of a British male citizen between the ages of 18 and 35 who volunteered and was sent to the front lines, As one soldier says, "We didn't bother with what was happening to our left or right or even back home - all we concentrated on was what was right in front of us." This is the virtue of Jackson's movie and, also, its failing: without giving the war a context, much of the global tragedy and incomprehensible cruelty of WWI is lost.
WWI was THE critical event of the 20th century; without it, the rest of the 20th century and the current posture of the world is unimaginable. It was as a result of WWI that the United States became a dominant world power and it was the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom's empire on which the sun never set. The Russian Revolution transformed that vast country from an absolute dictatorship of the Romanov family to a dictatorship of the proletariat. WWI destroyed other monarchies,too, in Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) and established the modern nation-state throughout Europe.
The cost of the war was staggering: forty million casualties with most major belligerents having more than a million each (the USA had over 100,000 dead and while its entrance into the war on the side of the Allies proved decisive, it was never a major player during most of the war). These casualties were the 'best and the brightest' their country had to offer. It is no wonder that Europe found itself fighting another devastating war in less than a generation - most of its future leaders were killed in WWI.
Jackson doesn't care about all that. Instead, he concentrates on the experiences of the common soldier. The film can be broken down into three parts: the soldier's enlistment and training, his time in the trenches and at the battle front and, finally, his return to civilian life. Wisely, Jackson colorizes only the dominant middle section so that when we leave the homefront for the battlefront, we experience a transformation similar to Dorothy's entrance into the land of OZ - we are no longer in Kansas.
Trench warfare dominated WWI. Both sides built and fought out of trenches. One of the earliest trench battles happened during the US Civil War in the siege of Richmond at the end of the war. Little changed in how trench warfare was fought in the half-century between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of WWI except for the vastly increased fire power of machine guns and artillery.
How anyone survived in the trenches is a miracle. There was no sanitation. Soldiers had one uniform that they wore for years. There were no field hospitals, no portable toilets (a piece of wood studding was placed over an open ditch for defecating and there was no toilet paper so soldiers used their hands), no clean water and drinking water was distributed in petrol cans that retained the smell and taste of gasoline. The food was horrible and the only ones getting fat were the rats that were everywhere, feeding off the copious number of dead soldiers rotting in the mud. When both armies started using poisonous gas the terrors of the front became apocalyptic (Hitler who served in the German army during WWI was blinded by an Allied gas attack near the end of the war and spent months in the hospital recovering).
The images are so clear that the soldiers' bad teeth (soldiers were issued one toothbrush and most used it to clean the buttons on the uniforms), dirty clothes and, horribly, wounds come alive. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers' corpses were unidentifiable because they had been so badly mauled by machine gun fire or blasted to bits by artillery fire.
Jackson's film provides an explanation for the similar conduct of many soldiers I knew who fought in the front lines of many wars: his film shows us why so many ex-soldiers don't want to talk about their time in the military. My father was in WWII and won two bronze stars as part of the engineer corps, but he never wanted to talk about his experience. Whenever I asked him, all he would say is, "It's not something I want to remember." One of my best friends fought in Vietnam and was wounded. Not once, in the many days and nights I spent in his company did he ever relate one incident or talk about one moment of his time in Vietnam. Jackson's movie speaks for them. As Civil War General Sherman said, "War is hell." They Shall Not Grow Old shows us, in vivid color, why that is true.