Jackson was thus able to take a more slice-of-life approach to his subjects. “The mundane parts of being on the Western Front are the most interesting. These soldiers, they couldn’t talk about the history of the First World War, they couldn’t talk about the strategy and tactics,” he said. “There’s one guy who says [in an interview], ‘All we knew is what we could see in front of our eyes. Everything else, to the left, to the right, we had no clue.’ That myopic, super-detailed … view became the story that I should tell. It’s a story you don’t often see in the history books and the documentaries. It’s what they ate, how they slept, how they went to the loo, what the rats and lice were like. The comradeship, the friendship.”
The film begins with soldiers recalling what it was like signing up for the war (and acknowledging their limited understanding of the conflict), going through basic training, living in the trenches, and going “over the top” into the nightmare of no man’s land. As a sort of oral history with expressive visuals, They Shall Not Grow Old succeeds at putting the viewer into the middle of a distant period. I was personally taken aback by the profound sense of camaraderie on display, by the grins on people’s faces despite the bleak surroundings, and by the genuine compassion that many British soldiers expressed for their German counterparts.
“You listen to these guys, and you realize they don’t consider themselves to be the victims that we have turned them into,” Jackson said of the film’s subjects. “They don’t want our pity; they don’t feel self-pity. They were there, they chose to be there, they made the best of it, and for some of them it was a period of intense excitement … Some of them even thought it was fun. That surprised me.”
Still, the film doesn’t hold back in its depiction of the brutality of trench combat, and how most British soldiers started seeing the war as a pointless effort the longer it dragged on. “The strongest opinion they would have had was, ‘The German army’s in Belgium and France, and we’re coming over here to push them out because we’re friends [with Belgium and France],’” Jackson said. “I don’t think people could quite get their heads around why the British and the Germans were suddenly enemies.” As the conflict winds down and more prisoners of war are taken, testimonial after testimonial in They Shall Not Grow Old suggests that British soldiers saw little difference between themselves and their supposed adversaries.
“They were dealing with the same hardships, eating the same crappy food, in the same freezing conditions, and they felt a sort of empathy,” Jackson said. “They were there because their governments told them to be there.” That empathy, mixed with a sense of futility, is what makes They Shall Not Grow Old such a precise triumph. Jackson takes whatever amorphous ideas the average viewer might have about the First World War and uses real human experience to give them shape. As the film’s hundred-year-old footage springs to life, each face—whether muddied, wearied, relieved, or overjoyed—suddenly belongs to a recognizable person again. It’s both thrilling and humbling to witness.