Director: Peter Jackson
Runtime: 99 Minutes
November 11th of 2018 commemorates the centenary of the Armistice with Germany which was celebrated in the allied nations as the effective end of the First World War, and the Imperial War Museum and 14-18 NOW (in association with the BBC) decided to commission a documentary in order to present to audiences otherwise alien to the world of the 1910s with a snapshot into the lives of the average British “Tommie” on the front lines of the conflict.
But by bringing on board celebrated New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson, Jackson saw fit use the archives at his disposal and not just restore the footage available, but to both colourise and visually alter the images in such a way as to present the image in a manner as close to the look and motion of modern-day footage as ever before – with an in-depth detail and focus using some of the finest technological tools to rejuvenate the footage.
The result is They Shall Not Grow Old; a Great War documentary that is at once a technological marvel, and also an earnest and moving memorial and a calcification of the values of a time and generation that has long since passed – and yet still feels strangely prescient in British culture and society as it is now and has remained since the end of the Second World War.
Of course, the intention appears on the surface to be to open conversation with those with otherwise detached perspectives of the time and conflict by presenting this real-world footage looking as modern and crisp as possible. But it’s the details and the illusion as well and the complex layers to the recreation that allows its spell to work a deeper magic.
Recreation really is the most appropriate word. Alongside the colourisation that incorporates realistic flesh tones and textures, entirely new frames have had to be created for the in-between spaces of the worn and battered material (lovingly cleared up) in order to account for the difference between modern 24 frames per second viewing and the original 10 to 18 fps to allow it a more fluid movement. It’s not something that is always entirely convincing, sometimes blurring the edges and the eye colours the extent that plays up the manufactured image, but for vast portions it does work.
There’s also the audio, with new sound effects used to replicate those very real sounds seen onscreen in full surround sound quality, and lip syncs with dialogue interpreted and spoken to bring life back to those we are seeing talk and move 100 years ago. This is a trick that has been pulled off before in works such as Sergei Loznitsa’s Blockade, but not quite to this capacity.
The effect it gives is quite startling as we see the commemoration through restoration and reestablishment of history literally being brought (back) to life before our eyes. Constructing an encompassed shared narrative of subjective storytelling through the accounts, stories and experiences of audio interviews from those who were there. There is no narration or singular voice or story being told, but a collective narrative being formed of an eye-level perspective of one of the most violent conflicts in recent human history.
The first half an hour or so is spent in academy ratio black-and-white, embellished with splashes of colour from overlaid propaganda posters and materials, hearing the announcement of war and the eagerness of young men to enlist despite their ages or abilities.
But once the film reaches the trenches, a slow zoom expands the frame and transforms the image into 24fps, high-definition colour for a majority of its runtime. The impact is instantaneously gasp-worthy, a monumental and extraordinary moment sensationally comparable to the sudden emergence of colour in The Wizard of Oz. But unlike Dorothy Gale stepping into a rainbow coloured dreamscape of imagination and wonder, we instead see in vivid, sometimes grotesque detail the appalling reality of a visual hell on earth that the front lines.
There is a dissonance at play here that ends up making the film such fascinating food for thought, as the near 114 serviceman commentary goes through the living standards, routines and encounters with chipper accounts delivered through distinct regional accents when recalling contextually mortifying accounts and parts of life in wartime
It’s almost disturbing to hear the enthusiasm in some voices as they appear to proudly rattle off their deceptions to get into the army by skirting around their young ages, their readiness to kill "Jerrys", and the conflict at one point naively being referred to as “a sort of outdoor camping holiday with the boys, with a slight spice of danger to make it interesting”.
This all comes tinged entirely by design as a product produced with a patriotic sting. To take people back to a time while in the comfort and stability of GREAT Britain continuing to soldier on. It reinforces Britain’s continued bizarre love affair with the wartime and the values they upheld, many of which feel practically faux when compared to the condition of the world (and particularly the country today). Erected in such a way that you’d almost be mistaken for believing that we had no help what so ever in conquering the enemy.
But it doesn’t shy entirely away from the accepted sad reality by the end. After an admittedly chaotic stretch in which battle is invoked without footage for a period so long that it almost numbs the effect (Jackson never does know when to cut it when he’s got something good), we reach the end of the war, the cease of gunfire, and the realisation dawn on the men that the world they will be going back to they may never be able to relate to ever again – with mass-unemployment and a general ambivalence from the public permeating as the footage of the soldiers plays out.
The film as it stands as what it is, a feature-length depiction of a snapshot brought to new eyes in a beautiful blend of technology and authenticity, and Jackson’s most valuable contribution to culture. It’s the intimate moments that linger the longest, with men caught off guard or regaling at their past stories regardless of what it means now. There’s an innocence and magic to it, and a clarity to its presentation that’s unprecedented in detail and atmosphere.