Peter Jackson’s documentary about life and death in the trenches of World War One is a technical wonder that gets to the heart of the sheer scale and emotion of a very human tragedy

Anyone (like me for instance) who has major reservations about the whole hackneyed, maybe even disrespectful, concept of film colourisation may be forced into a radical rethink while watching Peter Jackson’s masterful documentary about World War One.  

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The director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy has sorted through hours and hours of archive footage of the Great War and, along with a team of colourists and editors, has delivered what may be the definitive film document of what life was really like in the trenches for millions of men between 1914 and 1918.

The director has even employed lip readers to divine what troops are saying as they dig trenches, brew tea from the boiling water of machine guns lubricant, and nurse horrific wounds. There is much matey banter among the horror.  

This may be the definitive film document of what life was like in the trenches for millions of men between 1914 and 1918

The result is never less than a stunning, unnervingly funny POV of day-to-day life in the acrid swamp of Flanders and further afield.

There is little input from the outdated generals. So lions not donkeys and rightly so.

Students of the war or even casual viewers may think they know these images well enough already but under Jackson’s team they really come to life in living colour and a depth of field that has the eerie quality of found footage only recently recovered. Mortars thud, machine guns rattle and mines explode with sickening clarity; the stench of death, the lice, the rats, and the trench foot are almost palpable.

It is completely told from the (often teenage) infantryman’s point of view, from the sheer fun and jingoism of boot camp in Blighty, the camaraderie of the trenches, and the final realisation of the horrors of war as the bodies pile up. There is little input from the outdated generals. So lions not donkeys and rightly so.

There is much matey banter among the horror

The voices of scores of long deceased Tommies harvested from the archives of oral historians call down through the decades, with such early bon mots as "It was that Serbia business when that fellow was shot that started it" to tearful memories of acts of savagery and heroism on the battlefield.

They Shall Not Grow Old is entirely told from the British and Commonwealth side with little mention of other national combatants and none at all of the thousands of Irishmen who fell in between 1914 and 1918. German POWs do feature heavily as the Kaiser’s forces dwindle but this is a very British affair.  

Like many here in Ireland, Jackson’s own links with the Great War are strong. His grandfather William and several of his ancestors fought in the war to end all wars and the director’s beloved Tolkien also served at the Somme.

Peter Jackson puts a human face on a global tragedy with They Shall Not Grow Old 

The film closes with a very telling line from one bemused soldier that sums up the savage impact the war left on the ordinary Tommy but also the sense of miscomprehension and even discomfort felt by ordinary British men and women as the jingoism dried up on the home front.

As a technical feat They Shall Not Grow Old bears comparison with Jackson’s LOTRs films but it is the human story that will stay with you.

Alan Corr @corralan