The opening moments of They Shall Not Grow Old provides what you expect from a documentary about World War I; the footage is black and white, soundless and grainy. The aspect ratio is initially so boxy, it’s like looking through a keyhole at the center of the movie screen. Then, we hear the voices of surviving WWI soldiers, recounting their stories with great clarity and humor, vividly recounting vital incidents. As the voices (who are never identified on screen) multiply and the footage plays on, a startling, initially undetectable thing happens: the frame ratio slowly grows larger, until the entire screen seems to open up.
As we’re engulfed in the imagery and the story continues, the images grow sharper. As the footage and narration takes us through the recruitment, training and eventual battles experienced by British soldiers, the real stunner sneaks up on the viewer: suddenly, the footage is in color, with sharp, intricate sound effects bringing it to life. The viewer is still watching footage from the early 1900s but, due to the painstaking efforts to digitally clean up each frame, add color and versatile sound effects, the footage no longer looks ancient. In fact, many times during They Shall Not Grow Old, I forgot I was watching a documentary, let alone pieces of time, captured on film, that occurred over 100 years ago.
They Shall Not Grow Old has been directed by Peter Jackson, the Steven Spielberg of New Zealand, who directed (to name a few) The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the 2005 King Kong and the underrated The Frighteners. What Jackson has pulled off here is every bit as monumental and visually accomplished as his Tolkien adaptations.
Jackson doesn’t allow a thorough recap of WWI to take place, nor do politics and specific perspectives on the war (by personal account or hindsight) present themselves. The focus is always on the soldiers, whose faces are given a startling clarity and thoughts we hear through the ongoing narration. The approach isn’t entirely dissimilar to what Terrence Malick did in his The Thin Red Line, which also gave a platform to the mindset of the soldiers and downplayed the historical checkpoints. Historians may balk at the lack of a more thorough detailing of the world surrounding the conflicts we see but they’d be missing the point. Jackson aims to allow us an understanding of what it was like to live in this landscape, fight alongside hundreds of men, and be in the midst of these battles.
In the early scenes, it’s jarring and fascinating to hear the soldiers recall their initial thoughts on joining the battle, as they were full of pride and excitement to take part in the war. Seeing the considerable conflicts and horrors they experienced overwhelms the senses. Only the final title card provides a closing footnote; otherwise, there’s no editorializing or overtly celebratory moments. The sole commentary comes from the soldiers, who humbly recount their bravery and suffering.
While the film is a technical marvel, the effect isn’t entirely seamless. On occasion, the restored, colorized footage has an overdone refurnish, as some figures and details look like they’re floating or too out of focus to be upgraded. Still, even if the digital tools used to bring this to life find a few limitations, what Jackson and his team have pulled off overall is stunning. Soundless, grainy, black and white footage of battle has its own integrity as a collected record and as a cinematic witness. In Jackson’s hands, watching They Shall Not Grow Old is something closer to time travel, as we’ve never seen these men (as well as the locations, vehicles and various faces they encounter) with such you-are-there clarity before. As a tribute to those who fought on both sides of the battle field, as well as Sgt. William Jackson, a WWI veteran and Peter’s grandfather, this is a deeply impactful experience.
Rated R/99 min.
They Shall Not Grow Old plays on January 21 at the Maui Mall Megaplex, 1pm and 7pm in 2D, 4pm and 10pm in 3D.