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Peter Jackson’s masterpiece deserves to be seen on the big screen.

The documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” is really two documentaries in one. If you stick around after the credits, as well you should, there is another shorter documentary about the film was made the lengths to which Jackson and his crew went to ensure its authenticity.

The Oscar-winning “Lord of the Rings” director has created a tribute to the soldiers of World War I – and, in a sense, all soldiers – with this film about British soldiers on the Western Front.

It includes archival footage from World War I (1914-1918) that has been restored, carefully colorized and provided with sound effects and narration from real soldiers who lived through the war.

To say these effects are astonishing is an understatement.

He wisely eases into the jaw-dropping revelation that brings the war to life. We see not just unusual footage of England before the war, and of young men enlisting – men who lied about their ages so that they could go to battle.

We watch the boys turn into men, living in appalling conditions – you’ll hear all about the lice and the “bathrooms” …. Let’s just say flush toilets weren’t an option.

When the soldiers step onto the battlefield, it all turns to color. Their lives – and deaths – become even more real while we watch them live in trenches and die in horrible ways.

Jackson doesn’t use the imagery in an exploitative way. Still, it’s worth noting that you will watch explosions and see the carnage of war, from dead horses to the mangled bodies of soldiers who met gruesome deaths.

This is not always easy to watch, and it not mean for children or the squeamish.

Jackson used 100 hours of interviews with 120 British World War I veterans instead of a celebrity narrator. He wanted the soldiers themselves to tell their stories.

The sounds, from soldiers trudging through mud to actual dialogue, are carefully matched with what unfolds onscreen.

The title comes a line in the poem “For the Fallen” by Robert Laurence Binyon. It reads in part:

“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.”

The post-credit film, with Jackson explaining how the filmmakers achieved this historical monument, is every bit as interesting as the World War I documentary itself.

You’re liable to leave the theater with the strains of “Mademoiselle from Armentieres” ringing in your ears and visuals that will haunt you, possibly for years.

Something tells me Jackson might be headed for another Academy Award.


Film critic/reporter since 1985 at Quad-City Times. Society of Professional Journalists, Broadcast Film Critics Association and Alliance of Women Film Journalists member. Member of St. Mark Lutheran Church.