Cinema as an art form has always had the power to shock and horrify. Think of Italian horror films such as Cannibal Holocaust, Lars von Trier’s films, or the infamous 120 Days of Sodom. As a means of promoting the cultural hegemony of our time, film had been largely unchallenged in its dominance, until the advent of YouTube and the Internet. What cinematographers have always elected to shock us with has often been the extreme, and at times, the absurd. Collectively, it seems many are drawn to forms of more intimate horror, of the killer behind the curtain shower, or the torturer in Hostel.

Personally, I have never found such films of interest: my dominant right-wing disgust reflex guards against this. As cultural phenomena, however, I find them fascinating: what compels the enjoyment or thrill of watching a film like Saw? In truth, they are graphically consumed as fake, as objects of entertainment. There is a certain safety in watching them, a detachment. It is hard, however, to say that a viewer of They Shall Not Grow Old could feel the same detachment.

Ostensibly, They Shall Not Grow Old is a collection of remastered Great War footage accompanied by a soundtrack of interviews with interviews. In reality, it is a moving memorial to Europe’s greatest suicide. Director Peter Jackson focuses upon British volunteer soldier, from their excitement at signing up to fight to their experience of the trenches, the horror of going over the top, taking German prisoners, and the eventual end of the war. We are not told of times or places here: these men could be speaking of the Somme, of Ypres, of Verdun; the year could be 1915, 1916, or 1918. Instead, we focus on the lived experiences, the memories of these men.

And it is of men we focus on, not just the British, but the Germans as well. The sheer diversity of faces that stare out at you—from middle-class smiles to working-class toothless grins—they are all there. Handsome and ugly, their faces are what remain implanted on your memory. It is the slow realization of horror that creeps into the film that sits with you as time goes on: these are all ghosts. They aren’t actors painted up in a makeup studio. They don’t get to go off-set, go to bed in their star-studded homes. They must go to the mud. They get to march in orderly fashion into machine gun fire.

The footage available is limited, but what Jackson does is masterful: illustrations fill in parts of the war we don’t have moving images of, such as in-close fighting in trenches or marching across no man’s land to a certain death. He makes use of those faces, of those sacrificed upon the altar, juxtaposing real footage of men waiting with flashes of illustrated warfare and the almost casual remembrances of death that swirled all around them. Jackson does not shy from showing what we have of the dead. Dead Germans, dead French, dead British, dead horses: they are all there, empty. Heads caved in or blown out. Limbs lost or shattered.

In the middle of this horror and sadness are touching moments and remembrances that don’t often breach the mainstream narrative of the war. Of the German troops, British veterans remember the Bavarians and Saxons as the nicest, with them even going so far as to warn them that they were about to be rotated out and replaced by the Prussians, and that the British should give the Prussians hell. As the end of the war approaches, we see remarkable footage of German prisoners. It is humanity there at the heart where, again, the ordinary men discuss how pointless it all is. That the German was often a decent man, not like them, or how one was once a waiter at the Savoy.

Maybe I am just another sucker for sentimentality, for wondering “what if” it had all never happened. The reality is that it did, we are living with the consequences, and it is remarkably a conflict that has very little cultural coverage. World War II is explainable; we have a plethora of films about it. The First World War is so much more unknowable, our ancestors so much more distant. If this film does do anything, it is to bring home the reality of that conflict. In truth, They Shall Not Grow Old is both a dedication to their memory and to the simple fact that many of those faces never made it. They were simply cut down.

When most films’ credits roll, I always witness a quick burst of activity towards the exit, people held by the conclusion of the film but now needing to pee, get home, or eat. When the credits rolled here, however, an eerie silence remained and no one moved. It was unlike anything I have seen in a modern cinema. Peter Jackson must be commended on delivering such a moving memorial to the First World War. It is not a film that tries to offer an explanation: it merely showcases what we do have, what remains in the archives of our historical institutions that is so often buried away. It is in this film that it is brought back to life.