In 2015 the BBC, the British Imperial War Museum, and an arts group called 14-18 NOW, approached film maker Peter Jackson to produce a documentary to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the First World War. Jackson, whose paternal grandfather had fought in the war, accepted the offer and over the course of the next two and a half years, he and his crew poured through over 100 hours of war footage and 600 hours of audio files of interviews of World War 1 veterans to make They Shall Not Grow Old, which is his first documentary.
During the course of the film's production the decision was made to not only restore the aging film footage (much of which was in bad shape) but also to colorize and enhance certain parts of it. As Jackson himself said of his decision, “[The men] saw a war in colour, they certainly didn’t see it in black and white. I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world, so they can regain their humanity once more.” The film premiered in the U.K. in October of 2018, with a limited release in the U.S. the following December, and finally a general release on February 2nd of this year.
The film begins with a square-shaped “window” (which is smaller than the theater's screen) and shows black and white footage of life in the London of 1914 when news of the outbreak of war is announced. Then, in a fashion reminiscent of Ken Burns's 1990 Civil War PBS miniseries, the voices of actual WW1 veterans are used to narrate the footage of soldiers enlisting, being sorted out, going through basic training, and eventually being deployed to Europe. However, when the soldiers arrive at the actual battle front, the film's ratio changes to fill the whole screen and the film turns to color.
While I have seen colorized films before, I was not prepared for the stunning job Jackson and his crew did in bringing to life images that many a history buff has probably seen before in other documentaries. When this is combined with the 3D format, it gives the film a vivid and almost uncanny realism to it that was reminiscent of the those old Viewmaster viewer slides I used to look at as a kid, but in this case a hundred times better.
Moreover, given that the film footage he was restoring was silent, Jackson hired speech professionals to spend countless hours reading the lips of the soldiers in film archives so that he could dub in voices for them, as well as using all manner of tricks and techniques to create all the other sound effects of life at the front.
The combination of these three elements--the color, the 3D, and the dubbing--creates a film which literally shows the harsh realities of the life of a British soldier at the Western Front: the open latrines; the bland, as well as scarce, rations; the trench foot infections and rat infestations; and of course to the vivid detail the death and destruction which occurred all around them.
Through the veteran's words, we learn of their feeling of patriotism and duty to fight for their country or the shame some felt at losing a piece of humanity when the bloodlust overcame them in the heat of combat. And of course, we hear of their sense of sorrow as they mourned the loss of life-long friends and their innocence, and the feeling of dislocation so many of them felt when they returned to civilian life.
In short, it is a decent portrayal of men in the last war of an era where war was seen as a kind of “sport of kings,” and where men were thrown into unwinnable situations for the sake of politics and policies most of them hadn't even known when they answered their nation's call to arms. We see in “living color” the worst a fallen humanity can inflict on one another, but also a humanity that is not without hope of redemption as is seen in the way the soldiers cared not only for each other but also their German POW's.
Interestingly enough though, unlike the the Civil War miniseries, the film is bereft of many of the actual names, dates, and places, let alone any of the politics of the day which led up to the war. This was deliberately done by Jackson because he wanted to make a “film by a non-historian for non-historians” and because he “just wanted to tell a story about what it was like to be a British soldier on the Western Front in WW1.”
All of which he explains in 30 minute behind the scenes film short after the movie, so be sure to remain in the theater after the credits roll. Not only does it show all the work that went into making the movie, but how much other material and aspects of the war was actually left out of the film. Not to mention that Jackson's discussion on how he restored the old archival footage is practically a mini-lecture on filmmaking and its history. It is well worth sitting through.
As a final note, the film is rated R because the same video restoration and enhancements which brings history to life also brings the carnage and rotting corpses into stark detail as well. Granted that movies such as Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge are far more gory, but the fact that you are seeing actual combat footage may be disturbing for some. So viewer discretion is certainly advised.
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures