A Stunning Document of Filmmaking Technology
Since the epic trilogies that he became famous for are just not my thing, I had not seen any of Peter Jackson’s films before attending “They Shall Not Grow Old”. While this stupendous piece of technological craft will not make me want to go back and see “The Lord of the Rings” or “Hobbit” series, I certainly now know a fine filmmaker when I see one. Also, an engaging person. Hopefully, the thirty-minute documentary of how this stunning achievement was created will be available to you after your screening. Make sure you stay for it.
Jackson was contacted by The Imperial War Museum and asked to trying and make unique use of hundreds of hours of previously unseen film of World War I. He certainly has succeeded. Meticulously restoring black and white film to good order, then converting it to current projector speeds, he eliminated the jumpy images we are so used to seeing from the era. He then colorized it as well, creating an absolutely staggering sensation.
The film begins with a few minutes of very well restored black and white images as the scene is set. I knew from others who had previously seen it about the updating of the film stock, but as this went on for a few minutes, I kind of forgot about the color part, thinking perhaps some still images I had seen were just photos used for promotion. I was still quite impressed at the black and white quality. Then, as a group of soldiers is shown wandering across the frame, the scene dissolves into color. I kind of got the feeling like when you first see “The Wizard of Oz”.
Except ten-fold. Men whose faces seem like ancient period pieces, now are real. There is an almost dream-like quality to it. Of course, the nightmarish parts were to come. Jackson made the decision to focus on the basic day to day existence of a ground soldier. He had access to other things, like air warfare, and home front activity, but settled on telling a simple tale. He also had precious little actual battle footage, aside from shelling.
You really feel like you are getting to know the soldiers. Of course, these men were not used to being filmed, likely having never even seen a movie camera, and they are constantly looking at the lens, no matter what else they were doing. What they were doing of course was often quite gruesome. Trench warfare is bad enough, the trenches themselves provided plenty of misery. Filled with rats and lice even in good weather, filled with water in bad, these were daily challenges apart from the shelling and occasional fire fights. The challenging, and at times disgusting, issues are explored but not overdone.
The lighter side of serving at the front also is explored, with the mundane aspects of training, eating, and figuring out how and where to sleep detailed. And they are explored with the two other main devices used in the film, the voice-overs, and on-screen dialogue. The voice-overs are done by actual soldiers from the war who were interviewed in the 1960’s and 70’s about their experiences as soldiers. They provide all of the audio description, there are no presenters or narration. I found the voice-overs to be slightly overused, the credits at the end list literally dozens and dozens of soldiers who voices appear, but that is a minor quibble
The soldiers speaking on screen is another unbelievable and painstaking achievement. In shots where soldiers can clearly be seen to be talking, lip readers were hired to figure out what they were saying, research was done to discover the regiments and what area of England the soldiers were likely or definitely from, and actors provided the proper accents. It is something that brings vividly to life the on-screen activity that we have never seen concerning this chapter in history.
While all of these amazing elements create amazing realism, it doesn’t necessarily raise dramatic tension. This is a fascinating study, but it is a completely unconventional documentary. We don’t learn facts about campaigns or battles, we do learn what it is like to be a soldier, and much of that is obviously quite tedious, although illuminating.
There are many moments where you nod or quietly say “wow”, about things revealed such as the generally friendly relationship with the “enemy”. German soldiers when captured, for instance, almost immediately start assisting with the British wounded carrying stretchers, and normal interaction is commonplace.
In the end the film is a technical masterpiece. Anyone with even a marginal interest in filmmaking has to see this picture. Jackson’s attention to detail rises to compulsive, which makes staying for the documentary after the feature a must-see. His description of the challenges of the colorization of the grasses in the backgrounds is elaborate and fascinating. He has a wry little sense of humor typified by when he describes the use of his own collection of war artifacts. He notes that the replication of the sound the tanks made was helped “because I have a vintage WWI tank….as you do”.
This was a complete labor of love for Jackson. The film is dedicated to his grandfather, who served in the war, and was wounded multiple times, which affected his health severely after the war. Jackson describes how his emotions are torn about his father’s service, since after being wounded once, Jackson’s father was returned to England for a short time for treatment, and that is when he meets and marries Jackson’s mother.
The film missed a deadline for this years Academy Awards, and is a 2018 piece, so it won’t be eligible next year either for Best Documentary Feature . That is a shame. It did win the British equivalent in 2018. It certainly deserves that kind of treatment.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” is indeed more of a technological triumph than a true storytelling documentary , and some might find it a bit flat after the initial wonderment at its visual achievement. But it is a groundbreaking piece of work that should pave the way for its techniques to be used for the benefit and enjoyment of us all.
Clink Scale 8.4