Peter Jackson’s new documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, commissioned to commemorate the First World War Centenary, sheds new light on the lives of the ordinary soldiers who fought on the front line between 1914-1918.
Using restored archive footage and hours of interviews with veterans, conducted by the BBC in the 1960s, the film is surprisingly upbeat and far from the sombre lessons we’ve all been taught about the horrors of the Great War.
The re-humanisation of the conflict is hugely effective, and the audio of the veterans candidly talking about the conflict – in their 60s and 70s – continuously surprised the Lord of the Rings director.
“There’s no self-pity [from the former soldiers], and for the most part they seemed to enjoy themselves,” Jackson tells Yahoo Movies UK about the hours of audio he trawled through to make the film.
“They all talk about horrific things, they all talk about seeing horrific things, no-one is trying to sanitise the war, but they’re not asking for any self-pity. They’re not asking us to feel sorry for them, and they’re not feeling sorry for themselves.”
Along with the restored footage, the interviews are astonishing to hear. One veteran calmly talks about finding another soldier who’s lost an arm and a leg in a bomb explosion, and how he shot him to put him out of his misery. Another talks about living through a gas attack, and wondering to himself what life will be like now he’s blind.
But on the flip side, another veteran describes his experience on the European front line as being like a summer camp “with a spice of danger to liven things up a bit”, and they all speak fondly of the camaraderie they had with each other, and even with the German prisoners of war they encountered.
“A lot of them see it as ‘our lives before were boring, our lives after were just boring, working in a bank or a factory’, it was very mundane,” Jackson explains.
“This was an exciting adventurous, dangerous time, and we were alive. And they didn’t regret it. Obviously there were some veterans that came back severely affected by it, but certainly the ones in the audio interviews, they regarded it as something that changed their lives, but changed their lives in a strangely good way.”
The film avoids trying to contextualise the global conflict in terms of its place in history – there are hundreds of other documentaries that do that – instead this focuses on the human experiences. It’s a moving look back at a more innocent time, a time of friendship and kindness to each other.
“The thing that touched me the most was they said there was so much friendship, that it was a friendly time,” adds Jackson.
“If your mum sent you a pudding from home, the first thing you do is you chop it up and share it round with your mates. There was kindness. There was a lot of kindness.”
They Shall Not Grow Old will receive its world premiere at the London Film Festival on 16 October, when it will also screen nationwide, supported by a live Q&A with Peter Jackson.
For more information and tickets, please visit theyshallnotgrowold.film. Watch a trailer below.