In the Director’s commentary following his documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson comments that he made the film as a “non-historian for non-historians.” Jackson is correct in making this assertion as They Shall Not Grow Old is a conventional WWI documentary on the “Common British Soldier.”
Jackson’s main contribution with this production is to restore Imperial War Museum (IWM) film and still footage. He comments in the post-documentary commentary on the techniques that went into making this archival footage watchable for a modern audience. My suspicion is that Jackson’s film also makes some of this footage widely accessible to viewers for the first time as much of this is probably not digitized. Even the venerable IWM can’t possibly have the budget to digitize and restore film for public access on the internet. Jackson also provides useful exposure to the robust sound archive recorded by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) in the 1960s and 70s. This archive is largely accessible online and a great listen for anyone interested in the history of WWI.
His claims, however, for why he chose to make a conventional narrative about Tommy Atkins (“average white British soldier”) on the Western Front seem bogus to me. Jackson argues that the scope of the IWM and BBC archives made it hard to create a coherent narrative for the viewer. Ok, I can buy that. The war took part on a number of dispersed fronts that weren’t coordinated into any real Allied strategy. What I don’t understand is how adding a few scenes and audio clips involving Sikhs and Rajputs would have distracted from the conventional war narrative he constructed. He even shows a few scenes with Sikh soldiers in them but makes no effort to weave them into the narrative even though the BBC audio archive contains stories about Indian soldiers who served in the trenches during WWI.
Jackson perpetuates the same stale narratives of war that many other authors and director’s have used. His explanations for why that narrative is not stale but still relevant, essential, and universal wring hollow to me. They remind me a great deal of conversations I’ve had with United States’ Civil War buffs who are more interested in the type of rifles used by Federal and Rebel forces and the uniforms they wore more than the issues that led them to war in the first place. I guess this shouldn’t have surprised me as Jackson shows off in his post film commentary the large collection of WWI material culture he possesses, including a vast stock of uniforms, small arms, and even several artillery pieces.
It’s too bad that the post film commentary didn’t come before the documentary. I would have been more prepared for what followed and less disappointed at the end. He warned me “after” the film that as a military historian, I was not the intended audience.
My suspicion is that the same audience that liked Band of Brother’s and The Greatest Generation will like They Shall Not Grow Old. The conventional narratives still get told for a reason. They sell books and films. People like them. As one of a handful of scholars who bridge the gap between war literature and war history, I understand why they like the conventional narrative, but I feel duty bound to point out that in 2019 that narrative isn’t good enough.
I’ve evolved sufficiently as a white man and a scholar to handle warrior narratives involving non-white soldiers. I can even comprehend that women belong in war narratives. I think, given enough time and effort on the part of authors on page and screen, that others can come around to this point of view as well.
This is a necessity (btw) and not a luxury as Global War on Terror (GWOT) veterans come into their own as producers and consumers of war narratives. I imagine anyone who fought in Afghanistan or Iraq or who served on missions in countries where we aren’t “technically” at war will look at this documentary the same way I did. A quaint throwback that could have been handled much better with the help of a knowledgeable screenwriter.
The documentary has a limited release in theaters. I saw it at AMC River East 21 tonight in 3D. I’d honestly recommend waiting to see it on your home screen. It wasn’t worth the nearly $19.00 plus tax I paid to see it.