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‘They Shall Not Grow Old’

I will never forget talking with an old school friend in the pub after he got back from the first Gulf War in 1991.

He had left school at 16 and joined the Army just as I went into the final years of high school. In the gulf, he served as an officer in a tank regiment.

At the time, I knew nothing about war apart from Hollywood films. His stories could not have been more different.

He spoke bluntly about the mind-numbing boredom of waiting in the desert for six months while the Iraqi forces were bombed.

And then the chaos, confusion and inhumanity of what happened as they advanced through enemy lines.

I remember not really knowing what to say. We were both 19, but he seemed a lot older.

His words came back to me as I sat through Peter Jackson’s remarkable film, “They Shall Not Grow Old.” It’s all about soldiers fighting on the Western front during World War I.

The incredible thing about the film is how vividly it brings the soldiers’ experience to life.

Every single word spoken during the film is said by actual veterans. This makes it a film not about politics or military strategy, but simply about people.

What struck me is how many speak about their desire to enlist due to their drab and boring jobs.

We have a tendency to victimize those sent to the battlefields but what struck me was their enthusiasm to fight.

While there is no holding back on the horror of war, there is a huge absence of self-pity. The men speak of having a “job of work” to do and of their willingness to get on with it.

Another striking element is how young so many were. You were supposed to be 19 to enlist, but thousands of 15- and 16-year-old boys signed up, often with the collusion of the authorities.

Watching the film sitting next to my 15-year-old son brought this reality home to me.

The other key element is Jackson’s restoration of the old film. The two elements are the re-adjustment of the speed of the jerky old film and the coloring of the black-and-white footage.

The impact of both of these changes is to humanize the people you see in a remarkable way. They are transformed from being distant historical figures to young men you relate to.

The footage that I found most powerful was that of captured German soldiers carrying injured British soldiers, assisting with the medical help and chatting to their “enemies.”

Many British soldiers talk about the respect they had for the Germans as they realized how much they had in common. It is a stark reminder of the tragic idiocy of war.

Another aspect of the tragedy of WWI was the lack of understanding that men faced when they returned home.

Many wives and families were either unable or unwilling to comprehend what the soldiers had been through. It is a shame they could not have seen this film.

Like many novelists and war poets before him, Peter Jackson has done us all a great service by helping us understand better the reality of people’s experiences.

It is a much-needed antidote to the heroic Hollywood rubbish that passes for “war films.”

Nothing could be better to watch as part of reflection and remembrance of World War I.

As my son said as we left the cinema, “That is by far the best thing on war that I have ever seen.”

Director: Peter Jackson.

The movie’s website is here.

Editor’s note: A version of this review first appeared on Kuhrt’s blog, Grace and Truth. It is used with permission.

Jon Kuhrt

Jon Kuhrt is chief executive of West London Mission and a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London.