They Shall Not Grow Old
Peter Jackson has been pioneering new technologies in film since his Lord of the Rings movies introduced an incredibly credible motion-capture character with Gollum. The New Zealand native has built an empire around his visual effects and filmic abilities with his latest work showing the further capabilities of such skills.
They Shall Not Grow Old is, at its barebones, a World War I documentary. It is told only with archive footage, documents and narrated by interviews of British World War I veterans. The twist in this film, however, is that Jackson has managed to convert the footage from its jittery and silent black-and-white to a vivid and cacophonous colorful immersion.
Jackson decided to do this project free of charge for the Imperial War Museum of London as a commemoration of WWI. He was tasked with the project in 2014 and took 4 years to complete the restoration and edit of this documentary; the result is that the film is more of an experience than it is a lesson. The voices of the veterans help deliver some sort of structure as we get to see how soldiers lived their lives at the front. Jackson rarely focuses on the actual combat (only ten minutes of description are devoted to it) or the geography or politics of the war, all we get on screen are voices and images of games, meals, and largely soldiers just sitting around.
I was particularly struck with the incredible amount of humanity that the film was able to infuse. This was largely due to the selected footage that showed most of the soldiers having a good time and goofing around, you could almost confuse them for being at an adult summer camp. Jackson also provides sound to these silent pictures which helps gage the atmosphere and camaraderie that was present at the time. However, as to not lose sight of the horrors of war, Jackson interposes jarring footage of explosions and bodies with that of chuckling soldiers, showing us the life and joys that were being robbed from those individuals.
However, this magnanimous effort does have slight stumbles. Jackson has claimed that with more time he might have been able to smooth out the restored footage, but as shown in theaters today it still looks a bit clunky. Some frames of the restored film give off a feeling of being projected on a pool of water, with ripples causing unnatural effects on faces and movements. This seems cruel to critique, given the amount of effort gone into bettering what some had deemed “unrecoverable footage,” but it nevertheless pulls you out of the immersion that Jackson was trying to give you in the first place. The second gripe was with the narrative structure, while I understand the honoring of veterans by having them narrate their own story, there were sometimes too many snippets at a time, so that you felt drowned by them. With the addition that some of the elements being discussed by interviewees wasn’t being displayed on screen, it made you want to split your brain in two so that you could absorb the picture and the audio at the same time.
In the end The Shall Not Grow Old does justice to its subject by giving us a truly immersive experience into this horrific time for humanity. The documentary stands out for its technical feats, but as a narrative and historical exposure it also largely triumphs. Given a few misgivings due to time-constraints and the nascent state of this new technology (new algorithms had to be invented for the restoration of certain film footage), this is a fascinating and milestone experience in documentary cinema.