At once a virtuoso technical exercise, a stunning lesson in popular history and a moving tribute to the soldiers of World War I, Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old” applies his expertise in digital restoration to archival footage from Britain’s Imperial War Museum, accompanied by excerpts from the later testimony of veterans in BBC interviews, to convey the terrible horrors and simple heroism of trench warfare on the Western Front. The extraordinary skills of Jackson and his team give the material a degree of texture, immediacy and visceral power that might have seemed impossible to achieve only a short time ago.
He begins, cannily, with boxy, black-and-white images of youngsters—many of them technically underage—enthusiastically appearing at recruitment centers and waving goodbye to their loved ones, and beginning training in 1914. The sequences have been digitally retimed and enhanced with 3D elements, but still appear familiarly antique. Then as we move onto the actual field of battle, the frame expands to full size, the images turn into color, and rustle and hubbub of action fills the soundtrack; at some points snatches of dialogue (deciphered by lip readers and made to jibe with mouth movements barely glimpsed) are even added.
The transformation comes as a total shock, making vivid, almost palpable, visuals that, before the application of the wizardry Jackson and his colleagues have developed in making their fantasy blockbusters, would have seemed musty and somehow quaint into an immersion in another reality. The material still feels otherworldly, but now that world is felt and heard in a way that feels new and fresh. If Woodrow Wilson famously called D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” history written with lightning, “They Shall Not Grow Old” is like the history of Wilson’s own time brought vibrantly to life in a way that teachers could only dream of before.
There will be those, of course, who dismiss the film as a stunt—which it is, in a way. But it’s a very good stunt, one that applies technology to the highest of ends: making an immensely important moment in the human past more understandable to the present.
Others will criticize Jackson’s effort for not being more like a conventional documentary about the Great War. It doesn’t get into the diplomatic blunders that caused the conflict, or specifics about leadership and strategy, or details of victories and defeats, or inquiries into how the conflict came to an end and how that affected future events. Those sorts of documentaries already exist, as witness the recent PBS series about the American role in the war.
What Jackson is after is a portrait of the experience of soldiers who fought in the trenches in roughly chronological terms, from enlistment to armistice—of course particularly the British men featured in footage preserved in British archives; and in doing so it leaves a profound impression of the amazing camaraderie of the fighters, the indignities they suffered and sacrifices they had to make on the front, and the immense losses they incurred (Jackson does not flinch from including images that show the terrible cost of the conflict in human terms). The result must have a similar effect to that “All Quiet on the Western Front” had on readers when the book first appeared, at a time when readers were still deeply affected by words on a page; most demand a more visual emotional stimulant today. Some of the most poignant moments here involve German soldiers, too—captives who are treated remarkably decently by Brits who recognize them too as pawns in the war game of their governments.
One shouldn’t omit mentioning Jackson’s collaborators in this remarkable effort: co-producer Clare Olssen, editor Jabez Olssen, digital VFX supervisor Wayne Stables, and the small army of researchers and technicians who sifted through the mounds of archival material, selected those to be included, and meticulously processed the result. Together they have created an exceptional film that’s sure to become an indispensable teaching tool, but deserves life outside the classroom as well.