WWI doc They Shall Not Grow Old sets thrilling precedents for reviving historical footage

They Shall Not Grow Old (Warner Bros. Pictures)

With Academy Awards night on Sunday, February 24, it’s time to fill the gaps in our 2018 movie-watching. As usual, Best Documentary Feature is the category in which most cinephiles have the most catching-up to do. The nominees include Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s RBG, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Free Solo, Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap, RaMell Ross’ Hale County This Morning, This Evening and Talal Derki’s Of Fathers and Sons. Mysteriously not nominated is Morgan Neville’s lovely ode to Mister Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Also missing from the list, ineligible for logistical reasons related to release date and submission deadlines, is an extraordinary work by Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movie franchises. Titled They Shall Not Grow Old, it has not been widely distributed, but has been popping up in cinemas here and there, and it’s an experience worth seeking out.

They Shall Not Grow Old is a true passion project, and it shows. Jackson has been a lifelong World War I buff, the grandson of a veteran of the Great War. He has invested much of his hit-moviemaking wealth into collecting memorabilia, including more than 40 fighter planes that still really fly, which he keeps in an aerodrome in his native New Zealand. As the centenary of World War I drew nigh, Britain’s Imperial War Museum and the UK government arts commission set up to coordinate memorial exhibitions and events, 14-18 NOW, approached Jackson, knowing of his strong interest in that period of history, and offered to throw open their collections of motion picture footage from the war if he would do something new and different with it.

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They got their wish; the movie that resulted is unlike any World War I documentary you’ve ever seen. As Jackson explains in talking-head self-interviews and glimpses of his studio process bookending the film, he and his crew brought all the high-tech resources of modern filmmaking technology to the challenge at hand. The archivists gave him free rein to tinker with more than 100 hours’ worth of original film footage. Jackson & Co. did not content themselves with cleaning up all the scratches on the old film stock, much of which consisted second- or third-generation copies; they made it look like a movie that could have been shot yesterday. The herky-jerky motion that we associate with early-20th-century newsreels – the result of hand-cranked cameras – is completely gone, as these modern wizards tweaked the number of frames per second as needed to render human movement absolutely natural.

These bits of silent film have realistic dialogue and ambient soundtracks now, as well. He hired lipreading experts to figure out what soldiers must have been saying and actors to lip-sync those lines. For a sequence in which an officer gives a pep talk to his company in preparation for their movement to the Western Front, Jackson had his people research which military unit it must have been. Then he pored over their records until he found the text of a speech with the right date and content, read it aloud, had his engineers figure out how it fit with the officer’s movements, then hired an actor with the correct regional accent to deliver the speech.

In perhaps the most audacious move of all, Jackson colorized. This isn’t the kind of colorization that gave early efforts to modernize classic black-and-white cinema a bad name; it looks so natural that it makes this historical footage spring insistently to life, humanizing the troops as never before since the Great War itself. The level of detail here is so stunningly meticulous that it sets a new precedent for processing archival film, however poor the condition. Jackson also took artistic liberties by panning or zooming into scenes that were originally filmed with a wide-angled stationary camera, so that the static newsreel feel gives way to a contemporary cinematographic style of storytelling, engaging the viewer emotionally in the lives of these young men who are mostly about to be slaughtered.

Jackson keeps his focus on showing what life was like for ordinary British footsoldiers on the front lines in Belgium. Most of the soundtrack consists of clips from oral histories recorded by World War I veterans in the 1960s and ’70s, none of them identified until the closing credits. It’s an Everyman’s-eye-view of the naïve excitement of signing up to fight “Jerry,” the appalling conditions in the trenches, the numbing butchery of battle, the sense of deflation following the Armistice and the disorientation of returning home, jobless and unable to relate to anyone who hadn’t shared their horrific experiences. The director makes no political statement about the stupidity of war in general and that war in particular, but he doesn’t need to. These vets tell their own harrowing collective tale clearly enough.

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