Film Reviews

A History Book Come to Life: They Shall Not Grow Old Is Equally Magical and Brutal

It feels strange that World War I – “the war to end all wars” and one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history – would need a special colorized documentary to finally make us appreciate how bad it really was, yet here we are, marveling at Peter Jackson and Weta’s digital facelift of 100-year-old footage.

You don’t get that feeling right away, though. Instead, They Shall Not Grow Old begins a bit like your average History Channel war documentary: Archival interviews from surviving soldiers play over a mixture of old propaganda cartoons and B-roll footage of young men training for a war they barely understand. It’s all in black and white, quite dry, and enough to put you to sleep if you aren’t a history nerd. (I actually am, but even I was dozing off.)

Then it happens.

The black & white imagery on screen, originally presented in a boxed format and purposefully playing as if we can hear the old projector spinning the film reels, gradually expands to full screen. Suddenly, without warning, it all switches to vibrant color and sound, like a history book magically waving back at you. British soldiers, young and old, are given color, voice, and natural movement, something they’ve never had before since when they were alive film was black & white, silent, and shot at 13-15 frames a second.

Jackson and his team have changed all of that:

Perhaps it’s not so surprising to see Jackson, the man responsible for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, weaving such film magic.  Here, he’s simply exercising a slightly different muscle, collaborating with his team in New Zealand to the colorize the footage, update it to 24 frames a second, and use modern sound techniques to make sure all the weapons on screen pop.  For the rare occasions when the soldiers on screen speak, Jackson hired lip-reading experts as well as carefully chosen voice actors to best approximate what the soldiers were saying.

The results are so stunning Peter Jackson has already been inundated with offers to restore other types of old footage. First things first, though, he has plans to restore his earlier movies which have never made it to Blu-Ray, like Meet the Feebles.

However, while the exact lengths Jackson went to are unprecedented the actual act of colorizing old war footage isn’t new. Anyone remember World War II in Color, World Media’s heavily hyped documentary series from a decade ago? If not, it’s on Netflix now and the effect of giving more immediacy to the past through vibrant colorization is similar.

So, the marketing hook of They Shall Not Grow Old isn’t entirely new, but nobody has done it quite like this before. As a result, They Shall Not Grow Old has a first-of-its-kind appeal, which is a real draw for cinephiles, but there is also something uniquely macabre about it all. The footage we are seeing has been recovered from old, unprocessed reels which were found inside, essentially, a WWI museum basement. Given how old it is, we glimpse the faces on screen with the absolute guarantee that they are all long since dead. It’s like saying hello to ghosts from over a century ago.

Peter Jackson seems to be feeling that as well, though. So, he leans into it and uses it to gut punch us. Once we’ve been sucked into all the voice over stories and perfectly edited footage of the day-to-day life in the trenches, we quickly and quite brutally see just how many of the men given new life by this colorization process never even made it out of the war. Smiling faces are juxtaposed with unflinchingly graphic shots of mangled bodies and blown apart heads, as the absolute horror of life along No Man’s Land is depicted to horrifying effect.

The aftermath of trench warfare.

However, They Shall Not Grow Old has its flaws. There is a slight uncanny valley feel to some of the restored imagery.

Plus, since this work was originally commissioned by England’s Imperial War Museum there is a one-sidedness to it all. Jackson’s source material is old footage of British soldiers and old BBC Radio interviews conducted with WWI survivors decades after the fact. As such, the story told is an exclusively British one. The only voice for the other side is limited to whenever Germans are taken prisoner in the footage. Those who know little to nothing about WWI will likely walk away not completely understanding the exact intricacies.

That’s oddly fitting, though, because as They Shall Not Grow Old makes clear the soldiers fighting in the war felt the same way. They didn’t know why they were there. They didn’t know who was winning or losing. They just wanted it to end, and then once it did they struggled to ever be the same again.

Or, to put it more obviously, war is hell. WWI was especially horrific. We’ve always known that. Thanks to They Shall Not Grow Old, we can finally feel it.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Peter Jackson made this a love letter to his grandpa, a WWI veteran who died a physically and spiritually broken man at 50. Jackson wanted to bring to the screen all the stories he heard about his grandpa growing up. Most people are in the same boat. If they personally know WWI at all, it’s through stories handed down from grandparents or great-great grandparents. Otherwise, they know it through history books or movies like All Quiet on the Western Front or maybe just Wonder Woman.

Not anymore. Thanks to They Shall Not Grow Old, the anonymous dead of history have been given a chance to remind us they were normal people just trying their best to get a job done while rubbing right up against the increasing mechanization and brutality of war. Peter Jackson’s pioneering film restoration techniques used to make this happen don’t produce entirely flawless results, but the overall effect is stunning.

RANDOM PARTING THOUGHT

Post-Credits Alert: There is a 30-minute making of featurette which plays after the credits. It is a must-watch. You will walk away with a fuller appreciation of the extreme lengths they went to in order to pull this off. Moreover, Jackson presents additional footage not featured in the movie. He explains they also could have included segments covering every facet of the war – including the way women went to work in the factories back home in the UK – but chose to simply focus on life on the Western Front instead.

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