Peter Jackson is a World War I aficionado, and his respect for this particularly dark moment in human history shines forth in his truly groundbreaking documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old (2018). Released in theaters for just two separate days in the U.S. this December (7th and 17th), the film consists of a remarkable technical achievement.
In a short introduction that plays prior to the film, Jackson explains to the theatergoers how the film itself was made possible. Taking one hundred year old footage, Jackson and his technical team set out to modernize the look and feel of the footage (and therefore humanize the soldiers depicted). Starting with black and white footage that was mostly filmed with hand−cranked cameras, the post production team at Weta Workshop in New Zealand painstakingly adjusted the frames per second in playback to achieve a real−time timestamp, colorized the footage in exquisite detail, removed scratches and flaws, applied Foley services to re−create the sound, employed lip readers to provide a script for ADR actors to reenact the words in the soldier’s mouths, and zoomed in to create the ability to heighten the drama with in−frame quasi camera movements.
The result is that audiences are treated to a very realistic, visceral, impactful and empathetic viewing of this historic footage. The soldiers, previously regarded as shadows of sorts, souls that lived in the distant past that have little to no relation to our current generation, now come to life in a way never seen before. We notice the excitement on their faces as they enlist and volunteer for the armed services in Britain, as we hear soldiers talking about being anxious to “get into the fight” and excited about the opportunity to “see the world.” We notice the boredom of soldiers as they wait behind the front lines. We notice the slow but steady devolution into dread and fear in their expressions as they draw near the conflict zones, and finally abject horror and/or shock as the realities of the modern weaponry start sink in.
In keeping with the theme of the visuals—that of showing only original footage—the only voices we hear in the film are taken from interviews of actual Great War veterans taken from some of the same archives that housed the film reels that were ultimately restored. The voices provide an overview and first hand description of what it was like to be a soldier in the war, beginning with the enlisting in England, through basic training, to trench warfare and the experience of shell−shock, to the unimaginable bravery of an all−out offensive in battles such as the Somme or the Marne.
The use of first−hand interview in narrating the story underscores the, on the one hand, ordinary and mundane character of the soldiers, juxtaposed with the absolute horror of the conditions on the other. The irony of the entire situation: that these men found themselves enacting incredible bravery, patriotism and resolve under the pretenses of a geopolitical chess game carried out by an elite ruling class that would crumble under the weight of the conflict is more poignant than ever one hundred years later.
Perhaps the lesson here is that these men and women, this war, and the terror surrounding those fateful four years a century ago are no different from us, from our own time, and from the potential tragedies out current generation faces. It is important to retain and appreciate not only the history book−type knowledge and understanding of the causes and pitfalls of the conflict, but also honor the eminently ordinary and yet incredibly brave men and women who lived it. This film is an absolute must−see.
Justin Wells is a filmmaker working on Hollywood productions to pay the bills and pursuing his love of documentary films in his spare time. His book, How to Film Truth: The Story of Documentary as a Spiritual Journey, was recently published in the Reel Spirituality Monograph Series with Cascade Press. Follow along with Justin and see what’s he watching and working on now on his website.