Four years ago, Peter Jackson was approached with a project to commemorate the centennial marking the end of World War I. He was provided access to hundreds of hours of war footage and audio, much of it third or fourth generation suffering the effects of aging. The track holes for the film had shrunk, give the film a shaky look. The film was turned by hand back then, causing uneven timing. Rather than consistent twenty-four frames per second, the film was thirteen to seventeen frames per second. The film was often over or under-exposed. Scratches and other aging issues created additional challenges. Most of all, Peter Jackson needed to create a single narrative from hundreds of hours of films and audio to create a seamless, interesting story. In a word? Success.
There are many stories that could be told from the footage. In fact, it could have been a montage of air, land and sea (like Dunkirk). Instead, Jackson chose to personalize the story. He accomplished this by creating a single narrative of the infantryman (and artillery) and life in the trenches. The Great War was, after all, a trench war. The narrative is accomplished through a chronology as told by the men who lived it. The story begins with recruitment, and several tales of men who enlisted as young as fifteen relating how they were told to "step outside and have another birthday." From recruitment, we gets anecdotes from equipping and training, shipping over and then life in the trenches. The trenches aren't a pretty sight. We get a taste of the death, infestations (rats and lice) and even trench foot. Depicted with amazingly restored footage that manages to be stomach churning. We get a trench raid and then an assault, armistice and life in the aftermath of the war. It is a complete narrative examining the life of an infantryman and the challenges they faced both during the war and after.
Peter Jackson's team did some amazing things. Aside from piecing together a story that felt like a true documentary from many diverging stories, they managed to make the story feel seamlessly connected to narratives that were also taken from unrelated audio. Because the experiences were so homogeneous in the trenches, it felt like men telling their own stories while viewing the footage we were viewing. The restoration was so spectacular that the team was able to zoom in on subjects giving a far more intimate view of the soldiers than the original footage. This also allowed the team to pan, zoom and use other cinematic features to modernize the look of the film. The use of 3-D, colorization, stabilizing the film, matching the audio and finding suitable material to tell the parts of the story for which there was no film, worked together to create a polished, incredible, life-like journey into the past. The war was brought to life in a way I have never seen it before.
I have read that the tanks were the wrong color in this film. They should have been brown instead of green. If Jackson managed to miss one trick, I am not going to hold it against him. The research done to make this film authentic is amazing. Jackson's team had to create audio for sections of the film where the soldiers were talking. They brought in lip-readers to translate what was being said. Then they identified the unit the soldier belonged to, where that unit was from, and hired an actor from that region to give the lines. The uniforms were carefully matched for color. The sound effects were created rather than using stock audio. Aside from using equipment to match the visuals, the team went so far as to visit an artillery range to capture the sound of artillery live. When it came time to match audio for the closing credits, Jackson wanted an authentic doughboy song. He chose the racy Mademoiselle From Armentieres. A group of New Zealand musicians did most of the music for the film, but Jackson wanted authentic British voices for the track. He called the Embassy and asked for a group of men to come to his studio to record the song. They did it with gusto. I would have never guessed that I was listening to a bunch of diplomats. Particularly for that song. I included a link so you can read the lyrics for yourself.
They Shall Not Grow Old is a war film. There are more dead bodies in this film than I could count. They are real dead bodies. Many are partially decomposed. There are dead horses, dead rats and graphic injuries. The film talks about the war in terms that demonstrate the meat-grinder it was. One group of soldiers we get to meet were most likely killed, to the man, thirty minutes after the film was captured. This film is graphic. Not gratuitously. It is telling the story of life in the trenches during the Great War. As such, it does not pull any punches. This is actual footage from the war, restored to color so that there is no doubt in your mind as to what you are seeing. It is for audiences that can stomach war violence and death. I would recommend a teenage audience or older. Run time is one hour, 39 minutes. However, after the credits roll, there is an additional half hour documentary on how this film was made. The total run time was in excess of two hours.
They Shall Not Grow Old is a once-in-a-lifetime film. There have been many films created that have incorporated footage from the Great War. There are many documentaries about the Great War (and other wars). This film manages to take events that happened more than a century ago and bring them to life. The illusion created by the seamless integration of audio and video, along with the amazing detail in the colorization and restoration of the film make for an engaging story as told by the men who lived it. Films like this don't come along often. I think it will lose some polish if you wait to see it on video. This is the kind of film best viewed on the big screen. If you can catch it while it is still in theaters, try to see it. 8.5/10.
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