The timeline leading up to the making of director Peter Jackson’s first world war documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, is an interesting one. Jackson’s grandfather, Sgt. William Jackson was English and fought in World War 1. As a boy, the director-to-be would hear stories of life in the trenches, stories he would never forget. They gave the youngster an emotional perspective that many of a newer generation rarely experienced. In recent interviews Jackson has made in order to publicize the film, he’s remarked several times how it was always an ambition to make a film about the subject.
So, when in 2012 the UK government formed an arts program titled 14-18 NOW, created to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, an idea to make a film was developed. Once the Imperial War Museum and the BBC became involved, in 2015 they grouped together and approached the filmmaker about the project. Would he be interested? After realizing he would have access to over a 100 hours of unseen footage taken during the war, including more than 600 hours of recorded testaments from soldiers who had fought on the front line, Jackson accepted. Three years later, the production was finished. The director took no fee. He dedicated the documentary to his grandfather. The ending result is something quite remarkable.
The process used is fascinating. The original footage of British soldiers filmed while in Europe was shot in monochrome without sound. At only 13 frames a second, when viewed, people and objects moved in that fast-paced, Chaplinesque style. You could see what was happening but the limitations of the turn-of-the-last-century technology rendered an emotional distance between the viewer and what was being viewed. It was like watching moving antiques.
With the technical wizardry that Jackson and his down under company have developed, the director created something ingenious. First, he digitally inserted extra frames per second, bringing those 13 up to the regular 24. On playback, the process created a smoother and more realistic sense of movement. The visual grain of wear and tear was then digitally removed. Next, the black and white footage was colorized, adding an extra layer of depth. Sound effects of cars, guns, and all kinds of background ambient noises were added. But here’s where things became really inventive.
Jackson hired lip-readers to watch the found footage and write what they thought the men on the screen were saying. Once lines were scripted, voice-over talents were brought in to read and record those lines. After all the new elements were finally incorporated together, watching the footage again, what was once a jerky, silent, monochrome, 13 frames a second film suddenly sprang to life. The effect is nothing short of astonishing.
They Shall Not Grow Old has no narration. There are no date stamps, no time perspectives. It’s not a history lesson. Instead, what you’ll hear are recordings of eye-witness accounts, soldiers who were there and who recorded comments for the archives once the war was done. Like the footage, Jackson and his team plowed through 600 hours of old recordings, digitally cleaned them to make them sound new again, then had them flow together throughout the film, usually corresponding with something we’re seeing.
For the first thirty minutes, the documentary maintains the original black and white look with images boxed into the center of the screen. “I don’t regret experiencing it,” says one voice, adding, “I wish I hadn’t.” “It made me a man, yes it did,” says another.
War is declared, and both men and boys are encouraged to sign up. Britishers, Enlist Today! declares a poster. “England couldn’t possibly lose,” states a soldier. “An enemy of England was an enemy of mine,” states another. The sign-up age was supposed to be no younger than 19, but many boys who had no clear idea of what they were in for were happy to lie in order to join. Several of the voice-overs relate how, as an underage enlister, recruiters would tell them to walk out of the office, turn around, then come back in and tell the army they were 19.
After receiving their often ill-fitting uniforms – “I was in the army for four years and only had the one uniform,” says a soldier – we follow the men across the channel to the continent. And it’s then when the visuals change. Like Dorothy after the lengthy sepia-toned introduction that changes to color once she lands in Oz, the small boxed, black and white imagery broadens wide as color sweeps across the screen. What a moment ago looked like old-time news reports was suddenly a live event. Sounds from the front flood in, soldier’s faces take on a depth never before seen, and voices are overheard. With the addition of 3D lenses, you’d swear you were witnessing events that were filmed just days ago.
Technical aspects aside, the documentary’s strength is that it’s not a patriotic flag-waver. The horrific realities of fighting and trying to survive in horrific trench conditions are all on full display. We see the problems with lice and how the mud turned to a thick syrup that clung to everything, day after day. Soldiers talk of the sickly smell of death that permeated the air around them as comrades in arms are seen rotting, their decaying bodies twisted in shockingly bizarre positions. The Great War was clearly anything but.
Though perhaps what surprises the most is what happened to many of the men once the war was finally over. The color drains, the widescreen narrows, and the visual boxes once again, and the men return what was left of their uniforms and re-enter civilian life. Only there were no jobs. Folks back home who had no clear vision of what conditions were like on the western front were happy to see family members back but had little interest in talking about it. Employers would often declare that ex-servicemen were not wanted. “I had no commercial value,” states a voice-over. “People didn’t seem to realize how terrible the war was,” states another.
In Britain, the film was shown on BBC 2 on November 11 in honor of the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that officially ended the fighting. Copies of the film were sent to all schools across the United Kingdom for free.
Stateside, the film will be shown at select theatres as a special presentation with Fathom Events on December 17 and December 27. You must go. The film is astonishing.
MPAA Rating: NR Length: 99 Minutes
To find out more regarding locations and tickets CLICK HERE for Fathom Events website