Storytelling, like war, is an inherently destructive process. Especially when one is dealing with historical events and personages, anyone who seeks to frame an event or character against its historical background is faced with an immediate problem: what is it that belongs? What is it that is central? What is unnecessary? What can be eliminated? All of these questions really come down to the same question: what does all of it mean? That which contributes to the meaning remains. That which does not, is left on the cutting room floor, as silent proof of the question of meaning which has plagued humanity since the dawn of consciousness. “They Shall Not Grow Old” does not avoid the question of meaning, precisely, and nor should it. The entire art of cinema revolves around our fascination with that particular question. But the meaning it pursues is not what one would immediately expect.
Eschewing the traditional focus of war documentaries on the large-scale events that shaped the modern world as we know it, the film instead opts for a far more experiential theme. The documentary is notably stripped of any and all voice-over historians explaining the significance of events, and is instead told only with the primary sources: remarkably well-restored footage shot on the front lines of the Great War, and the testimonials of those who experienced it. No specific battle is mentioned. No specific location is necessary, for the movie is not about the war, but the soldier. As such, the movie is not historical so much as human, and explores the extent to which the hardships of war stretch the human character.
The narrators come from any and every walk of life: they are tinkers, tailors, sailors, and all soldiers. They explain the kit they were given, the gear with which they trained, and the rations, or lack thereof, that sustained them every day. In a flurry of images, we see the hurried training, the shipment overseas, and the paradox of trench warfare: the drudgery of day-to-day existence interspersed with terrifying interludes of often incoherent action. The narrators relate that, when every day might be your last, different things become important to each man. The long, drawn out war finally comes to an end, and on returning, seemingly the culture shock they experience is not so much due to returning to everyday life, but to the lack of interest or comprehension from anyone at home.
The film strives to remain free of any agenda other than simply relating the story of men at war, and does an admirable job of telling simple accounts well. It is one of the two most remarkable achievements of the documentary. The other is the incredible work done behind the scenes to bring the century-old footage to life. As Peter Jackson explains in a short segment at the end of the film, a stunning amount of work went into colorizing and adding sound to the silent, black and white film. Professional lip-readers were hired to determine what each person was saying in any scene, and the dialogue was recreated using voices from the specific counties where each of the men would have come from. Colorization needed painstaking work, shot-by-shot, and the sound was re-created, not from stock, but from live artillery practice and shelling.
In the end, for such a simple story so well-told, the film deserves very plaudit it receives. It is not entertaining. For those seeking to understand the tidal waves of history, it is not even particularly informative. But it is undeniably compelling. For a film that avoids overly artistic touches, there is nonetheless one that stands out in service to its particular theme. For the scenes before the war, on the home front and in training, the footage is unrestored, silent, and colorless. When the subject turns to the front lines, however, is when the film suddenly sharpens, gains color, and captures the booming landscape of sound in the trenches. Then, in the final scenes, after the conclusion of the war, it returns to the soundless, black and white cinema from which it came. It simply serves to underscore the final point of the film: what these men experienced is a world apart from anything they had experienced before, and anything that those around them could possibly have understood when they returned. The question of meaning is never resolved, as was the case for so many of those men who, indeed, never grew old.