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Movie Review: “They Shall Not Grow Old”

By Philip R. Devlin.

(Dec. 18, 2018) — Since 2018 is the centennial anniversary of the end of World War I, there have been many retrospective looks at the war; however, few can match the movie that I saw Monday–“They Shall Not Grow Old.” The talented New Zealand filmmaker, Peter Jackson, directed the movie. Jackson appears for several minutes at the beginning of the movie to explain the project; additionally, he appears after the credits roll at the end to demonstrate the truly extraordinary uses of technology that he and his team employed in making the movie. His elucidation of the hows and whys of the movie is truly extraordinary and will revolutionize documentary film making. We also learn that this project had a personal angle for Jackson, as his grandfather had fought in the war and was wounded several times– wounds that eventually would take his life. The level of care and detail that goes into this film reflects his personal interest in the project.

Jackson and his team used hundreds of hours of original films shot by hand-cranked movie cameras in WWI and hundreds of hours of audio interviews of British veterans of WWI. They edited them to combine into a 2-hour- plus tour de force of what it was like to be a soldier in the trenches of World War I. The result is amazing. None of those original films had sound, so Jackson employed forensic lip readers to determine what the soldiers were saying and then cleverly dubbed those words into the original films; furthermore, those films were scrubbed, restored, and the film speed was changed to the “normal” speed of 24 frames per second. Some archived films that were way too dark or over exposed were also brought back to life and to full clarity. Imagine the thousands of hours that must have gone into matching audio clips from veterans of the war to the film clips and stills to make the film flow as it does! Talk about a Herculean task! The result is stunning. It is like going into H.G. Wells’s time machine and going to the Western Front yourself, an experience enhanced by the fact that the movie is available in some theaters in 3D. If you had a relative who fought in this war (as I did), then this is what you want to see to understand what trench warfare was like.

The film’s title is undoubtedly derived from the English poet Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen,” written in 1914:

“They went with songs to the battle; they were young.

Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.

They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;

They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.”

It isn’t easy to get a ticket. Current plans call for the movie to be shown only on the 17th and 27th of December. Reserved seating is required in most theaters. The Plainville, CT, AMC theater sold out both showings on the 17th in advance. My wife and I saw it in Southington at 4:00 p.m., and the theater was nearly full. The 7:00 p.m. Southington showing was also sold out. Be aware that there are very gruesome scenes depicted, as WWI was a nasty conflict. “They Shall Not Grow Old” is an extraordinarily moving film well worth watching. If you can see it somewhere on the 27th, do so.

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