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They Shall Not Grow Old, director Peter Jackson’s documentary on World War I, is a simple but breathtaking approach to a war with a thousand stories. No narrator makes an appearance; Jackson only uses snippets of 600 hours of recordings of British soldiers telling their own stories from the Western Front. The story starts with many as young as 14 signing up to fight, and follows them to the end of the war. The documentary (rated R for disturbing war images) played in select U.S. theaters on Dec. 17, and will play once more on Dec. 27 before a digital release in early 2019. Theater viewing shows off Jackson’s subtle use of 3D.
The beginning of the film plays like a newsreel, the usual jumpy black-and-white footage with soldiers narrating. But at a certain point, the real WWI footage goes through a Dorothy-stepping-into-Oz transformation. The sped-up, silent black-and-white film magically goes to the right speed, with color, sound, and voices. It’s the special sauce of the documentary.
Jackson (in a post-credits behind-the-scenes that is worth staying for) describes how difficult the speed issue was; WWI cameras were hand-cranked, so film was at all different speeds and the filmmakers had to play with footage until it was just right.
The filmmakers also came up with sound to bring the footage to life. They recorded sounds of actual World War I artillery to match with the guns in the footage and employed lip readers to find what people were saying, then recorded voices with proper accents from the soldier’s particular region of the United Kingdom.
The Great War was a war about technology—about tanks and new weaponized gases—so it’s a good turn for a documentary on the Great War to use incredible technology to tell the human stories and cost.
Ironically, one part of the documentary that drags is when trench combat finally begins for the troops. Jackson explained that no footage exists of the brutal hand-to-hand trench combat. Instead he cut together oral histories and drawings of combat from magazines of the day. The momentum grinds to a halt on the heels of the dazzling colored footage of these men eating and digging and laughing. But stick with it, the footage comes back!
It’s “a film made by non-historians for non-historians,” Jackson said. His grandfather fought in the war, was wounded several times, and succumbed to the wounds 20 years later. Jackson’s goal is that on this hundredth anniversary of the Armistice, people would search out whether their own families had connections to the war. Everyone from Indians to Americans fought, so he thinks anyone could have a connection to it. And after seeing those unforgettable colorized shots, you’ll feel a connection to it even if none of your family fought then.