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Armed with the full technical toolbox from his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit blockbusters, Peter Jackson has created a new kind of historical documentary with They Shall Not Grow Old. Commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the U.K. arts body set up to commemorate the centenary of World War I, Jackson’s technically dazzling screen memorial world premieres today at London Film Festival and simultaneously in theaters across Britain. Copies are also being sent to every U.K. high school, where the film should have a healthy future as an educational aid. No U.S. release is confirmed as yet, but Jackson’s name will clearly be a strong selling point.
Jackson and his team, including Weta digital VFX supervisor Wayne Stables, assembled They Shall Not Grow Old from more than 600 hours of footage supplied by Britain’s Imperial War Museums plus a vast audio archive from the BBC. The filmmakers then painstakingly upgraded and colorized these century-old images into ravishingly detailed 3D, digitally tweaking frame rates and drawing on CGI modeling techniques to lend them a contemporary fly-on-the-wall immediacy. Professional lip readers were even employed to help match casual speech snippets to the talking heads onscreen, a discreet bit of fakery in service of a broader truth.
Telling the collective story of Britain’s First World War fighting men using their own words, They Shall Not Grow Old plots a loose chronological arc from the outbreak of hostilities to the battlefields of Belgium to the inking of the 1918 Armistice. Jackson deploys a simple but inspired structural device to draw the viewer into these historically remote anecdotes. The opening footage is a scratchy monochrome montage framed within a small central rectangle, which gradually widens to fill the entire screen before transforming into the film’s fully colorized 3D midsection. In the final act, he reverses this process, as the post-war footage recede into memory once more. An elegant, poetic touch.
The warm, conversational informality of the disembodied voices behind the images have a personal feel, which adds to their slow-burn emotional impact. Unnamed until the final credits, the speakers recall cheerfully signing up to fight, encouraged by Army recruiters despite being legally ineligible at just 15 or 16. “I was told to go outside and have a birthday,” one recalls.
Others recount the minutiae of combat training in forensic detail, much of it comic. There are tales of smoking and joking, ill-fitting uniforms and foot-blistering marches, ramshackle open-air toilets and tea brewed in boiling water decanted from machine guns. Impressively, Jackson and his team find images in the vault to accurately illustrate almost every anecdote. The effect is both illuminating and eerie, especially when the reanimated ghosts onscreen make lingering eye contact with the camera.
When the action shifts away from England to the Flanders front line, the film’s mood inevitably darkens. These fresh-faced brothers in arms find themselves in filthy trenches crawling with rats and lice, where gangrene and mustard gas are the least of their worries. German bullets, shells and mines become a constant background soundtrack as the narrative takes on the feel of a real-life horror film, complete with floor-shuddering explosion effects.
Jackson does not spare us the gory detail and even grimmer images here: young bodies blown apart, soaked in blood, engulfed in mud and crawling with flies. But there are tender human stories amid the hellish carnage too, of rare courage and surprising kindness, and captured German soldiers mostly treated with commendable humanity. Nothing feels too sentimentalized or sanitized, but neither is it sensationalized for extra shock value. These are the true accounts of survivors, after all, mostly talking decades after the events and grateful to be alive.
Ending with a dedication to Jackson’s own grandfather, who served with the 2nd South Wales Borderers infantry regiment from 1910 to 1919, They Shall Not Grow Old is a superb technical achievement. Perhaps more importantly, it also suggests new cinematic methods of rescuing history from history books, humanizing and dramatizing true stories with a modest injection of movie-world artifice. Some critics may object to how Jackson streamlines and elides real events, stripping away specifics while offering no broader socio-political comment on the war. But as a immersive primer on the first-hand experiences of British soldiers, this innovative documentary is a haunting, moving and consistently engaging lesson in how to bring the past vividly alive.
Venue: London Film Festival
Production companies: WingNut Films, House Productions
Director: Peter Jackson
Producers: Peter Jackson, Clare Olssen
Editor: Jabez Olssen
Digital VFX supervisor: Wayne Stables
Music: Plan 9
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