Why should students watch ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’?

Written by Amber Jackson |


This BBC2 documentary, created by director Peter Jackson, shows another side to a war that we are used to learning about. ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ was made for the centenary of the Armistice of The First World War, which ended the conflict in 1918. It uses archival footage from Imperial War Museums (IWM) that has never been seen before and brings it to life with the addition of colour and sound.


Featured Image: courtesy of IWM



The Arts are being used to make The First World War accessible to younger generations.



The film was commissioned by 14-18 NOW, an arts project based at IWM London, which is dedicated to the commemoration of the centenary of The First World War. I worked at IWM London as a Youth Advisor for three years and witnessed the work that this organisation did with IWM museums and was always so happy to see that the arts are being used to make The First World War accessible to younger generations in a way that isn’t considered ‘textbook’. Their campaigns are geared towards finding out and sharing personal accounts of war that haven’t previously been shared publically. The Weeping Window and the portrait artwork of soldiers on beaches this year are just some examples of how 14-18 NOW use art to help us commemorate the centenary.


Whilst watching the film, it brought tears to my eyes.


This track record of a more personal touch to war stories was why I was looking forward to seeing ‘They Shall Not Grow Old.’ Whilst watching the film, it brought tears to my eyes. The images that you see in the film are countless video clips and pieces of history that have been collected from Imperial War Museum war and video archives, redeveloped with a contemporary edge. As you are looking at the screen, you see young men laughing and joking with one another. This is contrasted with the brutal imagery of war, all made real by Jackson’s additions of colour and sound. Audiences are viewing The First World War as they have never seen it before.


Peter Jackson has taken us on a journey back to a century that none of us have seen and brought it to life…


Nothing has been added to this footage, which is an incredible aspect of it, and it’s so important to see The First World War in this way. There has been a fascination with the recreation of ideas in film recently. This is all done to make old films more accessible to younger generations so they can experience past events in a way that is more relatable. ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ does exactly this – young people are able to watch this film and see the war as more than the grainy black and white silent footage that we associate with the conflict. Peter Jackson has taken us on a journey back to a century that none of us have seen and brought it to life for us. We are watching these men as though we are there.


Peter Jackson speaking in an Interview (taken from video courtesy of Daily Mail, YouTube)


“These people come alive and you are instantly drawn to them. They become real people. People that you recognise from work. People that you’ve been to school with. You’re sort of seeing who they are, almost, in their faces. It’s incredible.”

Peter Jackson, speaking to ‘The Guardian’


We can hear their voices, too. We are given their narrative. Many of these men were students like us, many were the same age as us – some were younger – and we hear them speak as they would have been, when the war was happening. Never-seen before wartime footage is coupled with the voices of veterans who fought in the trenches between 1914-1918. The attention to detail is incredible. We hear accounts of how boys lied about their age to enlist and how Officers just let it happen and we see men laughing with each other, singing songs – a personal favourite of mine was a soldier who, after dropping a bottle on the ground, styles it out and plays it as though it’s a ukulele. These men aren’t by any means portrayed as ghosts, which makes it all the more powerful.


Many of you may have studied The First World War at school and perhaps felt no attachment to the conflict, especially since it happened a century ago. This film allows younger audience members to relate more to the footage they are seeing and see these men as excitable young people who were motivated to do something good for their country. We also see other men that aren’t represented as much in history lessons, such as footage of men from India, Africa and prisoners of war from Germany, that had just as much a part to play in battle. We also see footage of the dead – much of which is gory – and we hear the voices of soldiers who tried to cope with the mass destruction and chaos that was happening all around them. This really resonates. Peter Jackson doesn’t give us a black and white or a binary war – he shows us everything.


IWM keep these stories safe so that they aren’t lost or forgotten.


An important takeaway from this film is that organisations such as IWM don’t aim to glorify war, they aim to remember it for future generations. They keep these stories safe so that they aren’t lost or forgotten, as many accounts have. Over the centenary commemorations, a fantastic job has been done to make museums and war stories more accessible to younger audiences and families by adopting a more personal approach. ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ does just this –  as young people, we are able to empathise more with the young people that gave their lives to better the future, by having access to their personal stories.


‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ is a promise kept. We will remember, and we do.