Roughly four years ago, the Imperial War Museum began working with director Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) to develop a documentary focused on World War I. His only directives: make it fresh and original. As a self-professed non-historian, Jackson seems like a lesser qualified individual over, say, Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan) or Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk) for such a task, however, after reviewing many reels of 100-year old footage and around 600 hours of archived audio interviews, he produced something that only an individual outside of the academic sphere could create. It’s not only a feat of technological amazement as the final product features 2K restored footage or that the experience is also being shown in 3D, but it becomes a truly singular work taking the audience through the POV of Britain at war through its visual and auditory pieces.
Whether you attend one of the Fanthom Events screenings or part of the wider Warner Bros release, the studio would be smart to begin each screening with Jackson’s pre-recorded introduction. He offers more than just an explanation of the film. He offers an expectation. Going in cold to They Shall Not Grow Old will likely create confusion and disorientation due to Jackson’s unorthodox approach to documentary filmmaking, one which takes a bit of time to get used to and this introduction does an incredible job immersing the audience quickly into the story. The story, it’s important to note, is not a traditional one. There’s no character to follow, no precise locations, and very little in the way of markers for time; there are just words and archival footage, footage capturing Britain before, at the start of, during, and after World War I with various stories by veterans playing over top. At first, there’s a sensation of hesitancy without something to grasp onto, but, eventually the mind relaxes and it’s easier to take everything in. This, of course, is not intended to suggest that the subject matter is undemanding because it will put you through the absolute ringer.
So how does it all work?
Using new technologies to restore the footage didn’t just mean making the images sharper, which they largely are, but it also meant adding color to the black-and-white images and making sure that the projection would fit on a modern theater screen. Technologically speaking, this isn’t a small feat. Perhaps recognizing that the audience is expecting something more antiquated at the start, or done just to create a visual bookend, They Shall Not Grow Old begins (and ends) with footage displayed within in a small square possessing curved edges. It’s a visual reminder of how far in time the footage traveled for display in 21st Century. At the start, it grows larger and similarly grows smaller toward the end. In these moments, the images lack color but possess clarity, as promised. These periods of the documentary serve to explore life outside of the battlefield, as well as offer an opportunity to learn how civilians viewed both the war and those who signed up to defend their country. Here, the black and white imagery, even juxtaposed against wartime posters and other propaganda, communicate a very clear sense of purpose: either individuals were for the war or against it, either you understand the consequences of war or you don’t. It’s not until roughly 30 minutes into the film, when the narrative shifts to the war front, that the images switch to color. In the moment it happens, it’s as though the lights are turned on and the real focus on the documentary sharply manifests. Moving forward, this is as close as any non-combatant in World War I can get to experience the same vividness of war as those speaking throughout the film. This is a feeling compounded by the use of 3D, which adds incredible depth and texture to everything the audience bears witness to. No longer is the footage just a relic of the past, but something with which the audience feels conjoined for the duration.
As a technological piece, there’s no question that They Shall Not Grow Old is impressive and evocative. It doesn’t shy away from presenting the grim along with the ebullient aspects of soldier life. Nor does it bask in any of it. Instead, like any strong documentary, it is without opinion in its presentation of facts. That said, the true emotional power resides in the storytellers who add color to the imagery. Not a single face of the interviewed veterans who provide the narrative of They Shall Not Grow Old is displayed, yet, through clever editing, Jackson assists the audience in generating associations. The audience is shown one face while a story is told only to shift to another face as a new voice begins, creating a sensation of characters audiences are used to. This occurs over and over throughout the length of the film, enabling the audience to hear for themselves from the men who lived through it. Their stories are filled with tales of boys lying about their ages in order to serve, of trying to get through basic training, of marching, and preparing for battle, stories of incredible violence acted upon them physically and mentally, and how it seemed, by the end, that the idea of war is something far grander than the real thing. These voices, in concert with the archived footage, both uplift and shatter the spirit as the audience endures a tale of global conflict that feels so long ago, but barely tips over 100 years old.
Even though Jackson declares They Shall Not Grow Old as “a film for non-historians by a non-historian,” that doesn’t mean it’s any less of an engaging, informative, and thoughtful experience. It’s all of those things, plus it uses enhancements in technology to try something new, something which feels bold and exciting on paper and exponentially more in execution. In a way, combining archived footage and faceless voices with present technology breaches time and space to make history feel very much present.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.