It was my good luck to score tickets to “They Shall Not Grow Old,” Peter Jackson’s newly released film using original archival footage captured “on location” during the First World War, primarily in England and in Belgium.
I say lucky, because the film had an extremely limited release, playing in select locations on December 17 and 27th only. In Delaware, that was the Regal Brandywine Town Center.
Jackson, the acclaimed New Zealand director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, was approached by the Imperial War Museum in London (if you are in London, with time and you’ve already been to the Churchill Cabinet War Rooms, it is definitely worth a visit. My favorite installation is Lawrence of Arabia’s Indian motorcycle – yes that one) to take over 100 hours of film and 600 hours of audio from the ‘Great War’ and make it into something unique. Challenge accepted.
Jackson, supported by a deep film tech team based in New Zealand, distilled and restored that material into a fascinating 90 minutes designed to bring the old films to life in a way never before seen. It is powerful stuff.
The film opens with grainy, variable speed black and white silent images that remind you of old footage we’ve all seen, and it all feels disconnected from reality.
Then, after luring you in, the film pivots to showing more or less the same footage, but restored, colorized, sped up or slowed down to normal speeds, and then adding sounds from special effects, voice-overs from those old interviews, and lastly dialogue inserted with the help of lip readers and actors from historically accurate regions to match up accents, to bring WWI to life in a riveting, unique way.
The end product is amazing, but of course horrifying and sad. Seeing Belgium devoid of all living things and ridden with mud-filled trenches and badly injured or killed soldiers, by way of but one example, is much harder to process emotionally in this modernized format. (My family was also mesmerized by the horrifying dental work of the day.)
Jackson obviously can’t do full justice to the war in the short time available, but fortunately, he doesn’t try. Instead, he focuses on what life was like at the time, with a primary focus on the mundane – the food, the uniforms, the esprit de corps, and the loneliness of war – the common experience of all soldiers that really was at the heart of so many of the interviews in those archives.
Should you go see this movie? Yes, but its limited release may make that impossible, at least in a theatre in the near term. But see it somehow if you can.
WWI is an impossibly complicated global political conflict that I have studied throughout my life and still don’t fundamentally understand. This film isn’t meant to get you any closer to those enigmatic political dynamics, but it does bring to life the difficult times of the era and the hopelessness of war that continues to this day, in a way that is wonderfully approachable and gripping.
Finally, don’t neglect to watch the 30-minute making of the film, starring Peter Jackson, that follows the main feature. Your understanding of the art and science involved in its creation will be enhanced tremendously.