When it comes to movies about wars, World War I has tended to get short shrift over the years. The highest profile one in recent years was Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, while films like All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, and Gallipoli have aged well. But World War II has gotten the bulk of the attention, with the so-called “Greatest Generation” feted time and again.
Director Peter Jackson is aiming to give those who volunteered for duty in the United Kingdom during World War I the tribute they deserve, with the documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. Using actual footage shot before and during the war and interviews done with surviving soldiers, the film takes the audience into the trenches to show the good, the bad, and the ugly about being a soldier.
But Jackson and his team have done far more than dig up some old scratchy footage. They have restored and enhanced the various film clips to an astonishing degree, and then put the whole thing in 3D to boot. The result is a film that puts the audience on the battlefront right alongside the soldiers, where you can almost feel the mud and smell the decay.
The usage of 3D in the past 20 years has been hit-and-mostly-miss, but it has an immense power in this film. The film begins with pre-war black-and-white clips in a square format, giving the impression that you’re peeking through a window to a world just on the other side of the screen. But when the soldiers go off to war, Jackson goes to wide screen and colorizes the footage, bringing a drama to the film that’s incalculable.
Given the fact that they’re restoring film from 100 years ago, not everything looks perfect, but the filmmakers make it easy to get immersed in the film. The interviews conducted by oral historians were not about the clips seen in the film, but using what must have been exhaustive research, Jackson and his team match up the audio with the video extraordinarily well. They also insert sound effects and other audio that weren’t on the original films to make it even more engrossing.
Instead of a staid and stodgy documentary that dutifully goes through the sacrifices of the soldiers, They Shall Not Grow Old is a lively experience. Many of the scenes feature soldiers goofing off for camera, showing personality that isn’t normally on display in such films. And when the horrors of war crop up, they are felt all the more deeply because of the intimacy of the footage.
They Shall Not Grow Old is about the common man who felt a sense of purpose during World War I, people like Jackson’s grandfather, to whom the film is dedicated. By itself, the footage shown is not all that grand, but Jackson has made it so with 21st century technology, bringing to life a time that should not be forgotten.