My hands were full with a popcorn bucket and a drink so I asked my fourteen year old son, D, to use his phone to scan the movie eTickets. This night’s film was Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary about World War I. The scanner flashed red and chimed, which got the movie theater employee’s attention.
“There’s an age restriction on this film.” He said.
I stared at the employee: a young man in his early twenties looking askance at the bad mother. We didn’t get a second glance when we saw Halloween (2018) at this same theater. “We know it’s rated R. And I’m his mother, his accompanying adult.”
“Are you sure you want to take your child to see this movie?” He asked.
“And you know what it’s about?”
“Yes,” I answered. My son rolled his eyes. I took a deep breath. I continued, “I’m his parent. And I figured that since many of the soldiers that died in World War I weren’t much older than my son, he can see this film.”
Viewer Discretion: They Shall Not Grow Old is rated R for good reasons. I encourage viewers to do their own research and make their own educated decision on whether to see this film and with who. I use Common Sense Media as a resource when I’m on the fence about taking my son to see a particular film. Here’s the link to their review of They Shall Not Grow Old.
The film’s story is told first hand, using audio from BBC interviews of World War I veterans in the late 1960s. Only two dates are given in the film, the date Britain declared war and the armistice date, November 11, 1918, at 11:11 AM. The viewer follows an unnamed British regiment through enlistment, basic training and deployment to an unnamed front. Jackson holds nothing back from the footage to show the horrible conditions of the trenches and exactly how people look after a battle. Rats, snipers, chemical warfare and water-cooled machine guns. The viewer sees it all.
Unlike, for example, Ken Burns’ documentary series about the Vietnam War, there’s no historical bias or political agenda. By removing specific dates, location and battles from the film, Jackson created an immersion into the human experience of war and he used a collage of historical film footage to do it.
He manages this through painstaking restoration of one hundred year old footage shot on location and exhaustive attention to detail. The colorized footage feels nostalgic. And the movement of the footage, which the team at WingNut Films updated from around twelve frames per second to twenty-four frames per second, gives the film a smoother, lifelike and modern appearance.
Jackson’s thoroughness was not limited to restoring the footage. He visited battlegrounds’ historical sites to capture the colors and light accurately. He consulted historians on exactly how the soldiers uniforms and gear should look. There are a few scenes where it appears the soldiers are speaking to the camera. Forensic lip readers reviewed the footage and wrote scripts. Then actors voiced the scripts. This careful regard for accuracy and the technological marvels used to restore the footage connect a modern viewer with the soldiers’ experience and the price they paid.
I couldn’t help but glance over at my son a few times during the film. He was absorbed. He was grossed out. He looked sad at the end. There’s an additional twenty minutes of film after the credits where Jackson discusses how and why he made the film. We didn’t stay for it.
D was quiet for most of the drive home but finally asked, “Did a soldier say he was fifteen when he enlisted?”
I answered, “Yes.”
“Did he die in the movie? In the war?”
“I don’t know. I hope not.” I answered.
When we got home, I went to my room and cried. They were all so damn young.