‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ may be the closest we get to time travel
Caroline Lezny | Thursday, October 10, 2019
New Zealand film director and producer Peter Jackson is best known for his work on the fantastical “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and its three prequel films concerning “The Hobbit,” but his most recent project is anything but otherworldly. It has been theorized by literary scholars that the fantasy of Middle-earth present in Jackson’s early “Lord of the Rings” films originated as a result of author J.R.R. Tolkien needing an escape from his experience as a first lieutenant in France during World War I. It is perhaps his intimacy with Tolkien and his work that inspired Jackson’s recent foray into the subject of the first World War.
Jackson’s debut documentary, titled “They Shall Not Grow Old” and recently released to the public on Amazon Prime, retells the story of the Great War through an innovative restoration of film footage captured during the war’s progress. Colorized, stabilized and filled with sound, this reworking of British archival footage feels immediate and intimate in its final form. Unlike most documentaries, the film is without a narrator; instead the words of British servicemen who fought in the unprecedented war overlay the footage and tell the story for themselves. The soldiers’ firsthand experiences and chilling narrations make “They Shall Not Grow Old” a documentary of memory as much as it is a chronicling of British participation in WWI.
If nothing else, the technological ambition of the documentary makes it a worthwhile watch. Every frame of the two hour-long film is original footage, but thanks to the editor’s manipulation of the dated material, it never feels dry or out of reach. The most exciting use of contemporary cinematic technology to enrich this footage is the addition of sound effects and voice acting manufactured to match the film’s visual cues. Explosions, gunfire, shouts and laughter of servicemen soar into the theatre, intensifying the story being told on-screen and forcing the audience out of their roles as voyeurs, into the World War beside the soldiers. This is not the jerky, silent, monochromatic film typically associated with WWI but a technicolor, explosion-filled sensory overload, unlike any historical footage seen before.
What is most striking about “They Shall Not Grow Old,” however, is not its impressive technological restoration or historical significance, but rather the incredible humanity it brings to a conflict that ended over a century ago. The faces and voices of these long-gone soldiers are brought out from behind the distancing mask of technological obsoletion and thrust vividly onto the screen. The film is — for all its preoccupation with restoration — immersive and surprisingly emotional, giving the audience a genuine look into the experience of a soldier in the trenches and on the battlefield. The documentary is at times brutally violent and difficult to watch, but throughout the grim narrative, there are moments of reprieve: a grinning man eating jam toast in a trench, a young soldier switching hats with a captured German, a man in uniform playing an empty beer bottle like a guitar and another repeatedly hitting his friend over the helmet with a fallen branch. These scenes of ordinary, trivial happiness are startlingly recognizable to contemporary audiences and ultimately reveal the soldiers of World War I for what they truly were: terrified boys of 17 or 18 without a clue about what lay ahead.
Maybe the only drawback of this haunting documentary is the breadth of its subject matter. Though the film makes an admirable attempt at spanning the experience from enlistment to post-war civilian life, there is simply too much historical and emotional ground to cover without rushing significant and potentially moving moments. Despite this result of what is most likely nothing more than over ambition, “They Shall Not Grow Old” is a powerful and groundbreaking documentary about one of the most harrowing periods of human history. While the film may not be possessed by the same fantasy as hobbits and all-powerful rings, the magic of “They Shall Not Grow Old” is in the portal it opens into history and its uncanny ability to bring the past to life.
Film: “They Shall Not Grow Old”
Director: Peter Jackson
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
If You Like: “The Lord of the Rings,” “WWII in Color”
Shamrocks: 4 out of 5