FILM REVIEW – THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD. Directed by Peter Jackson. Rated R for disturbing war images. 99 minutes.
Peter Jackson, best known as the director of “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit,” had a very different agenda for his World War I documentary, THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD. Given access to 100 hours of archival footage and many more hours of audio recordings of interviews with veterans of the war, he was less interested in creating an academic study than in making this pivotal world event – which ended 100 years ago last month – into something that would come alive for modern viewers.
Instead of reviewing the causes for the war, or exploring all the different parties and battlegrounds, his focus is the land war on the “Western Front” between, primarily, British and German troops. It was a literal horror show with troops officially as young as 19 (although many were younger) in trenches facing an enemy who had little more idea what they were fighting over than they did. Jackson’s own grandfather was there and survived, although was so damaged by the experience he died just over a decade later. It was that history that inspired Jackson to focus on the land war.
What makes this notable is what Jackson and his extensive team did to make the century-old films come to life. In going over the archival footage, they had to do more than select what to use and then clean up the prints. The restoration including not only dealing with the age of the material, but how it might have been over or underexposed, as well as the speed in which it was recorded. Much of it was done on hand cranked cameras, which meant that each piece of film had to be examined in order to determine how to adapt it to modern film speeds.
Beyond that was the question of colorization and sound. Jackson has noted that he would not colorize movies that were deliberately shot in black-and-white as an artistic choice, but such the World War I material was in black-and-white simply because there was no other choice. The sound track was enhanced with period music, but also employed lip readers to try to figure out what the soldiers in the silent footage were saying, and then dub it in with appropriate voices.
The result is a movie that makes these figures in old footage more than historical curiosities, but real people which, of course, they were. The point of the movie is less a history lesson than the opportunity to connect with those of an earlier generation who fought what was thought to be “the war to end all wars.” A century later, World War I seems like something from the far-distant past. “They Shall Not Grow Old” brings those soldiers back to life and remind us that this was a war fought by young men who did not know if they would live to see another day. Short of a time machine, this is the closest we can get to what it was like.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.