Peter Jackson has pulled off many extraordinary feats in his cinematic career. As the field general for “The Lord of the Rings,” he created a sprawling modern classic, and for “The Hobbit” he pioneered new technologies — whether we wanted them or not.
But “They Shall Not Grow Old” will stand as one of Jackson’s most remarkable achievements. Asked by London’s Imperial War Museum to create a documentary film out of a vast trove of World War I footage, he has assembled a unique and haunting testament.
The film consists of that footage (as well as magazine illustrations and posters created at the time), but rendered in a new way. No purist, Jackson uses all the digital tools at his disposal to colorize the film, add voices and sound effects, and generally try to make the ghosts on screen come to life.
Just to give the material an extra dollop of you-are-there immediacy, it’s in 3D, too.
Films made between 1914-1918 were in black and white and had no sound recorded, so this is a big job. Also, silent films were recorded at variable speeds, which is why when you see silent films they sometimes have a herky-jerky rhythm. Jackson has managed to smooth that out, with movements and facial expressions easy to perceive.
By lip-reading some of the people onscreen, dialogue has been added. We hear the booming of the cannons and the crack of rifle fire, especially during one sequence that approximates the horror of battle.
The film does not identify places or people. The intention is to chronicle the war experience, not distinguish between battles — it’s less educational than immersive.
Accompanying this revived footage is a soundtrack of soldiers’ voices, mostly recorded in the 1960s and ‘70s. These recollections are constant, and they take us from the early enthusiasm of young British men (one says he went happily to war thinking, “In six months, it’ll be all over and Bob’s your uncle”) to the grim details of dealing with rats, lice, and the smell of corpses in the muddy trenches.
Except for footage of captured German soldiers, we are focused on the British, and their experiences in Belgium and France. There was much more to the war, but evidently this is the material that Jackson had at his disposal.
As someone staunchly against colorization and wary of fiddling with historical footage, I think there’s an argument to be had about not making this kind of thing a habit. But Jackson appears to have been cautious in his methods.
When you see bright orange poppies growing in the green fields of death, the First World War becomes newly vivid. If “They Shall Not Grow Old” helps keep this global disaster from becoming a museum piece, it’s worth it.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” (3 stars)
Peter Jackson creates a fascinating documentary from World War I footage, using digital technologies of colorization and 3D to make the films breath in a new way. The film is less educational than immersive, and the remarkable footage is accompanied by recordings of WWI veterans’ voice, recorded during the 1960s and 70s.
Rating: R, for violence
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