They Shall Not Grow Old is a documentary of sorts which shows the experiences of several veterans of the First World War. Unlike most documentaries, however, it makes World War I feel very small, since it really only tells the experiences of British soldiers who were in some part of France (I didn’t really catch the name of the place, which is briefly mentioned, and all in all I don’t think it really mattered). The documentary has a very small and personal feel to it as a result of this considerably smaller scale.
The first portion of the film, presumably the first 15 minutes, is entirely in black and white, cropped to a certain aspect ratio so that all the footage is relegated to a box in the middle of the screen. It gives us the sense that we are simply spectating something in the past, a kind of detached feeling that we get from watching these old pieces of footage. This portion of the film details the events leading up to the war, and it’s rather lighthearted. The entire film features running commentary from several of the veterans lucky enough to return home from the war, with recordings from different time periods, as can be gathered from the variance in sound quality among these different recordings. In this pre-war portion, there is surprisingly little fear or tension. One of the veterans recalls that on the day that war between Britain and Germany was declared, he was having a meal with members of a German rugby team, as they had just had a game together. When a runner (a messenger of sorts, I presume) came to inform them of the war, at first the British seated at the table with the Germans did not know what to do, and eventually agreed that for them, the war would start tomorrow morning, and continued to enjoy their meal with their fellow German companions. At this point in time, many of these war veterans being interviewed were simply civilians, living normal lives in the city. The Great War probably seemed so far away, since the major cities saw no combat. And to the young boys, the War was an exciting opportunity. Not only could they serve their country, but they could go to other countries and take part in combat, which would be a refreshing change from their boring daily lives. The old footage shows hundreds of boys crowding up the area outside the recruiting stations. The most shocking thing is that most of these boys were really still boys, with some being 17 years old and others only 15. As of writing this, I am still 17 years old, soon to be 18, and it’s pretty hard to imagine while I’m now staying at home playing video games and watching movies, these boys were already going onto the battlefield. It’s hard to say if I would have joined then, but chances are, I probably would. So many boys were enlisting, and it seemed like the trend back then. Some of the veterans say that the reason they joined was because so many others were doing so. There was a sense of fun and adventure in the air as they all shuffled towards the training camps. And even during training, there was not yet much sense of danger, just hardship and strict regimens. I think that the fact that all of this is presented in a small, black and white box in the middle of the screen kind of contributes to that sense of detachment these boys had towards the war during this period. Which makes the next part of the film all the more jarring.
At first I thought that I had seen some false advertising regarding the film, since for quite a while, the film had been completely black and white, whereas the film had been advertised as a collection of colored and restored war footage. Well, I didn’t have long to wait. Once the soldiers finish their training and start heading for the battle field, all of a sudden the black and white picture begins expanding to cover the entire screen, and then — color. And the change is more jarring than one may expect. With the incredibly high definition and really detailed colors, you’d swear you were watching a modern-day documentary. Hell, the whole thing looks like some sort of modern re-enactment. I’m sure some people watching this film may believe that all of the color footage was acted out by actors and used special effects, but, aside from the sound I guess, it’s all authentic, as can be gathered from the still and static nature of most shots. And it’s a big shift from the first part of this film, in which viewers may feel detached from what’s going on-screen, because now it feels like the film has plunged us straight into the middle of the battlefield. While the first part was completely silent save for the narration of the war veterans, now the sound of bullets soaring through the air and mortar exploding fill the cinema. (By the way, I had at first wavered between watching this film in the cinema and at home, since the film is already out on home media at the time of writing, but I now have no regrets, because the sound in this film is incredible and makes the experience a hundred times more immersive, and at the end of the day, nothing beats a theater with multiple surround sound speakers.) From here on out, we begin following the soldiers’ journey from fresh-faced recruits to battle-hardened soldiers, taking a really detailed look into what life was like out in the trenches. And, instead of the fear, the film first highlights how gross it was to live on the trenches, in a fashion that is oddly comical. For one, the trenches were anything but sanitary. There is a shot in the film of soldiers with their trousers down, leaning against a wooden rail, their bare butts hung over a hole dug in the ground, pooping. One veterans recalls how they once heard screaming, and realized that the wooden railing had broken, and the men who had been relieving themselves had fallen into a steaming pile of shit. Besides from these gross, but oddly humorous anecdotes, the film also portrays the trenches as a home for the soldiers. One veteran even remarks that when there weren’t machine guns and mortar fire raining down upon them, it was actually quite fun. Most shots of the trenches show soldiers laughing and smiling, joking around with each other. To the common man, like me, it’s hard to comprehend how on earth these men, between the showers of bullets and bombs, can be so jovial and cheery. Maybe it’s to break the tension, or maybe it’s because it’s actually possible to get used to war. I mean, once you’ve endured something long enough, I guess it kind of becomes routine. There is one memorable shot where a soldier is keeping watch on the front lines behind a pile of sandbags, and a bullet pops his helmet off. Instead of ducking or shrieking in fear, the fellow just smiles at the camera. Maybe it’s because they haven’t seen the worst the war has to offer yet.
The early sections covering life in the trenches are at times comical, but also grotesque as the film does not hesitate to show disgusting imagery among the trenches. There are corpses lying around with maggots crawling in and out of them. There are also shots of the condition they call “Trench Foot”, in which soldiers’ feet become scabbed and red all over as a result of the rainwater flooding the trenches and forcing soldiers to wade through the dirty and muddy waters. “Trench Foot” itself is so grotesque that one must search for images of the condition to truly understand how terrible it is. But it’s not really until the soldiers receive the order to charge over the No Man’s Land that the film truly reveals how horrific the war can be. The soldiers are told that they are to charge the German lines, and that the order can come at any minute. All the soldiers are forced to wait a long time, and the war veterans recall how the hour before the charge was possibly more frightening the charge itself. The soldiers tried to joke around with each other as usual to keep morale up, but there was always an uneasiness hanging in the air. When the order comes, and the soldiers must brave the No Man’s Land they have only seen from a distance for so long, the film reaches its climax, in my opinion. At this point, there isn’t much real footage, since at the time it’s unlikely they would have had any photographers filming such a dangerous situation. The only things depicted on screen are drawn images, the sounds of machine gunfire and the cries of soldiers, as well as the narration from the war veterans. But these elements are used so effectively that this sequence is haunting to the last. The war veterans recall how they saw their comrades, only inches away from themselves, torn to bloody pieces by the machine guns, how the smell of death filled the air, how they had to step over piles of corpses in order to advance. I am not so good with words at to be able to reiterate what the film depicts during this sequence, but rest assured it is brutal and unrelenting, more so than anything the film has shown us thus far. When the soldiers finally reach the German lines, a fraction of the numbers they started out with, they don’t hesitate to return the favor. They fight the Germans like animals, charging at them with bayonets, screaming as told to in training. As for the Germans who surrender, some spare them, while others, consumed by animalistic urges, show no such mercy.
From here, the film then moves on to some odd tales that occur after the brutal charge: stories regarding the captured prisoners. I never thought that it would be possible to take prisoners during these conflicts, considering people often shot first and asked questions later, but it turns out that quite a few German soldiers were taken prisoner and lived with the Brits in the trenches for a while. They shared food and drink, and wounded Germans were even offered medical aid. And the funny thing is that the British and German soldiers actually kind of got along pretty well. The war veterans fondly remember the German soldiers as good and brave men, who had become just as confused with the war as the Brits. After going through months of living in the trench, and having to endure the brutal charge on the No Man’s Land, the soldiers’ enthusiasm and excitement for war had been sapped into thin air. Both German and British soldiers would share the sentiment that the war was pointless. Even the Germans didn’t care who won, as long as the conflict could end. In the midst of war, something that can strip a man of all humanity and reduce him to the bare instincts of an animal, I guess with enough strength, humanity can be preserved. The British and German prisoners never harmed each others, although the British soldiers did make it a habit to steal things from the Germans. In fact, German prisoners would even help to lift the stretchers carrying wounded soldiers. It’s a very odd part of the war, but there aren’t really any moral absolutes in life, I suppose. In propaganda, the enemy is always portrayed as evil, perhaps even cartoonishly so, but in reality, the men who kill and are killed by your comrades are really just humans, just like you. I’ve heard a quote somewhere, that soldiers fight not because they hate what is in front of them, but because they love what is behind them.
The film does a good job of providing what is probably an amalgamation of the soldiers’ time during the war, and we can assume that the brutality and grotesque imagery we see during the colored sections are what made up these soldiers lives for the four, long years they spent in the trenches. Which is why the film then skips to the end of the war. Another odd thing occurs. When the soldiers learn that the war is over, and they are going to go home, they aren’t exactly cheering. Some of the war veterans describe it as feeling like getting fired from a job, or being made redundant. Others are simply too overcome with exhaustion to be able to celebrate. Instead of joyful cheers, there is an odd quiet among the soldiers. And when they get back to their hometowns, they realize that things haven’t gotten better even though the war is over. As the picture fades back to black and white, and is shrunk back to the small and boxed aspect ratio, we see the now ex-soldiers wandering the streets in large crowds, unemployed, and apparently ostracized by most employers. Their time during the war has not left them as heroes, but rather people isolated from the common folk, who will never have any way of understanding what they went through during the war, since to the civilians, the war was always happening somewhere else. In the film’s closing, one of the veterans recall how he went back to the shop where he used to work, and recognized the man behind the counter. The man asked him where he had been for the past four years, and presumed that he’d simply been working the night shift all this time. As it turns out, the civilians were just as detached from the war as we the viewers are from the old black and white footage. And as immersive as the colored and widescreen war sections are, it’s unlikely that we common viewers will ever be able to understand what it was like out there, but what we’ve gotten in this film would come pretty close, I’d think. It would probably take a person who has truly seen combat to pass this judgement.
They Shall Not Grow Old is a haunting film. It’s not beautiful, but instead grey and drab, with disgusting imagery guaranteed to make some people’s skin crawl. But light-hearted moments and uplifting tales, such as the unlikely relationships developed between the British and the German soldiers, do prevent this film from simply being drab and depressing. The stark images, the crisp sound and the engaging narration from war veterans, work to help us experience the ghosts and demons of a battlefield long past.