‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ is an artistic masterstroke

Feb 1, 2019, 11:48 AM | Updated: 1:44 pm

Peter Jackson is a master showman. The man who turned Tolkien into a multi-billion dollar cinematic phenomenon, with his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, now turns his expertise to grainy old World War I footage. And in a lot of ways, the results are even more fantastic.

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“They Shall Not Grow Old” is a documentary made up entirely of 100-year-old Imperial War Museum footage, much of which we may already have seen in scores of WWI documentaries over the years. But oh, what a difference.

That difference is put on full display with an artistic masterstroke. The first 10 minutes consist of silent black and white footage projected onto a square smallish screen in the middle of the standard movie screen. It shows streams of British men, young and old but mostly young, enlisting, then learning how to be soldiers in boot camp, and finally being shipped off to France.

The moment they set foot in France, however, is when the magic happens. The screen image expands to full length, the black and white gives way to color, and the soldiers appear in 3-D amidst a naturalistic soundtrack. The effect is powerful, making me feel like I had just time-traveled a hundred years in a split second. Those ghostly people who I had been dutifully watching on the screen suddenly became living, breathing human beings, as relatable as soldiers in 2019. Occasionally, a soldier will even look straight at the camera and say something to us. Startling.

The emotional impact of this transformation does wear off a bit throughout the course of the 99 minute movie, but not a lot. And there are some moments that are so graphic, you’re not apt to forget them anytime soon. Countless shots of bloodied young men, some of them walking wounded, others mere crumpled corpses on the battlefield or in the trenches.

Scenes of dead and dying horses. Hastily dug pits where human bodies are piled up willy-nilly. And hundreds of rats, scurrying everywhere. For a little levity, the film offers up images of makeshift latrines where a half dozen men are seated on a log over another pit with their backsides all on display.

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Jackson enhances this immersive approach by excluding all historical dates and geographical markers. No voice-over narration explains military strategy. This is exclusively a grunt’s-eyed view of World War I. It’s the front line experience of trench warfare. The only context we get is the reminiscences of survivors who recorded their memories 40 years later, in the 1960’s.

“You could sympathize with how a rabbit must feel because we were hunted by mankind, just the same as a rabbit,” one soldier says.

As amazing as Jackson’s accomplishment is, the story of how he pulled it off deserves equal attention. Jackson and his team looked at over 100 hours of original war footage.  It was dirty, scratched, and torn and Jackson spent much of the last five years simply restoring the frames to their original pristine black and white.

Contributing to the difficulty was that the film had been shot on hand-cranked cameras at various speeds, most only half as fast as movie exhibition standards. That required his team to use all their computer know-how to adjust the film speeds to modern standards. As a result, the herky-jerky movements we’re used to seeing are gone and in their places are naturalized and instantly recognizable body movements. And perhaps most effectively of all, Jackson hired forensic lip readers to figure out what was being said on camera, then hired regional actors to say their lines with proper accents. It’s flat out eerie.

The film’s title comes from a remembrance poem about all the men who died in war but it gains new meaning thanks to Jackson’s efforts. They shall never grow old because they’ve been forever captured and preserved in film – in all their glorious youth.

Tom Tangney on KIRO Radio

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‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ is an artistic masterstroke