Documentary Releases: They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) - Reviewed

New Zealand writer-director-producer/movie mogul Sir Peter Jackson, best known for his The Lord of the Rings trilogy and producer of the recently released Mortal Engines, has made with his first documentary feature They Shall Not Grow Old in the director’s own words his ‘most personal film’ to date.  Commissioned by 14-18 NOW, an arts program dedicated to the centenary of WWI, Jackson was granted unprecedented access to hours of original footage from WWI from the Imperial War Museums’ archives in addition to over 600 hours of vintage interviews from over 200 veterans with the simple instruction from 14-18 NOW to do something ‘unique’ with the footage.  And boy did Mr. Jackson deliver above and beyond the program’s expectations, making a nonfiction film that arguably alters the narrative approach to documentary filmmaking for all time.  

In native form, the footage provided by the Imperial War Museum in addition to being silent in rough black-and-white appeared in a variety of slower frame rates including 11fps up to 13fps, making the footage and the soldiers captured in it move quickly like a cartoon.  Using all the tools of the trade at his disposal including CG augmentation, painstaking research of the decorum worn by the soldiers, colorization, an ornate sound mix of newly recorded foley effects, the hiring of forensic lip reading experts and voice actors reading the speaking lines of the soldiers, the end result proved to be truly remarkable and of lasting historical importance.  In other words, non-historian film director Peter Jackson has transformed all of that faded and damaged 11fps silent b&w footage into a fully-fledged 24fps color and sound feature which coupled with 3D in select screenings all but completely transports you the viewer over a century back into the past as though it were photographed yesterday.

Less of a detailed inquiry into the bullet points of the First World War than an abstract memory comprised of a compendium of audio interviews intercut with the restored footage, They Shall Not Grow Old jettisons politics and military machinations behind the war in favor of evoking what it was like to be an ordinary person thrust into the trenches and front lines surrounded by barb wire, unsanitary conditions and death as far as the eye can see.  There have been many dramatizations of WWI throughout the years as well as snippets of the archival footage showing up here and there, but few if any have ever brought viewers this close to ground zero before. 

While some CGI smoothing out of a shot or two making a soldier appear to move naturally does stand out, after a while you become used to the techniques and soon find yourself living with these men during their ordeal including but not limited to graphic images of slain soldiers with CG rendered flies crawling on the dead bodies.  Save for a few dedications near the end, no soldier’s voice is singled out, instead offering through the recollections of many a general overview of the mutual memories men had of their wartime experiences.  One of the first things that stands out are the faces of the soldiers which Jackson’s restoration team have given newfound life to, capturing every instance of fear, joy, laughter, sorrow and disillusionment. 

Coupled with the voice acting, Jackson’s restorative efforts have eliminated the patina of rough, shaky silent footage to make the plight of the soldiers in the footage immediate and instantly relatable.  Despite being over 100 years old, the restoration work conducted produces a result that is startlingly modern and renders the footage that much more timeless.  Though the techniques employed do indeed alter the original footage, including but not limited to panning and scanning inside a wide-angled shot, the efforts don’t diminish what was captured on film but rather bring modern viewers deeper into the world the cameramen captured. 

Clearly a labor of love for Peter Jackson, who along with his restoration team did not solicit for a fee for their years of painstaking work, Jackson would also admit in a mini-documentary about the making of the film that his own great grandfather, Sgt. William Jackson, had in fact fought in the First World War before imparting many of his wartime stories to the director in his youth.  Being an outsider to historical documentaries coupled with his own personal connections to the war arguably made him the ideal person tasked with bringing the legendary historical silent footage on the trenches and front lines together into a cinematic vision modern-audiences can relate to and understand. 

Jackson also added his aim with They Shall Not Grow Old had less to do with money than reconnecting with his own family lineage with the hopes that viewers coming to see it will do the same.  While Peter Jackson may have staked his territory in the film world with transgressive tongue-in-cheek fare such as Dead Alive before breaking box office records with his gargantuan epic The Lord of the Rings series, with They Shall Not Grow Old Jackson has provided a glimpse into world history never seen, heard or felt on film before and thus has created a universally appealing and genuinely innovative documentary to be cherished and adored for all time that everyone should see!

- Andrew Kotwicki