Movie review: They Shall Not Grow Old

I can’t remember the last time I took off work to see a movie. But my parents-in-law, four of my wife’s cousins, and three of their significant others all traveled at least an hour to a Regal Theater in Albany to see They Shall Not Grow Old with my wife and me.

It was a curious release process, two showings, one in the evening of December 17, and the other the afternoon of December 27, in about 1,140 theaters. It was put out by Fathom Events, which specializes in one-day cinematic events such as opera performances.

Back in 2014, the centennial of the beginning of World War I, director Peter Jackson was commissioned to take 100 hours of footage and 600 hours of audio clips and make a movie out of it. As the director admitted in a clip before the actual film, he didn’t know WHAT to do initially.

Eventually, he came up with a narrative that involved the recruitment process in Britain, with many of the recruits underage; they should have been 18, and 19 to go overseas. And it’s when the story switches to France that the film changes from black and white to color.

They Shall Not Grow Old does not attempt to describe a specific battle, but rather the stress from training, boredom from waiting, to being in the trenches and experiencing German bombardments. It wasn’t until the 30-minute “making of” that I truly appreciated the astonishing work it took to make the film look as it did, from slowing down or speeding up the film to making film that appeared too dark or too light pleasing to the eye.

I was so taken by the film that I immediately had to find the two critics out of 68 who gave it a negative review. One said, “Like all of [Jackson’ s] work, it is first and foremost a special effects movie.” And it is, and an incredible one at that, but an odd complaint.

The other groused that “the film is yet another erasure of soldiers of color who are nowhere to be found in what is otherwise a postmodern take on documentary filmmaking.” I don’t know was captured in those recordings so I can’t speak to this.

The truth is, and Jackson said so, that he could have made any number of films, including the role of women in the war effort, a generation before Rosie the Riveter. Or the war at sea. He was trying to create a coherent narrative. One does see, briefly, troops from other parts of the British Empire.

With the success of those two days, They Shall Not Grow Old will receive a limited theatrical releases in NYC, L.A. and Washington DC starting on January 11, with plans to then expand into 25 more markets on February 1.

Here’s Chuck Miller’s take on the December 17 screening.

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