Updated: Jun 1, 2020
Century-old war footage is given a new life as director Peter Jackson restores film for WWI documentary.
By Mickie Shaw, Multimedia Editor
The extraordinary World War I documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” chooses not to focus on the geo-politics or the homefront, but instead depicts the smaller picture: the human experience of the British soldier on the western front.
The restored and colorized images and authentic soundtrack brings the soldiers and the battlefield of WWI to life. The audience sees and hears the details of the war in color: soldiers’ wet, mud covered boots traipsing through muddy trenches, brown dirt and red blood on the young soldiers, the emotions on their faces, the soldiers’ talking and laughing and explosions of artillery so loud they rattle your insides. The film has a visual depth that the old black-and-white footage cannot reproduce. The documentary feels like a contemporary film.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” begins with an introduction by director Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings”) and continues with restored black and white footage. Narrated by the voices of WWI veterans -- from interviews the BBC did in the 1960s and 70s -- the documentary follows the soldiers from enlistment, through basic training and their experiences throughout the war. The black and white footage at the beginning dissolves to clear and vivid color once the newly minted soldiers arrive at the western front.
The film is blunt, revealing the carnage of war. Dead bodies -- some with ghastly wounds, some dismembered -- and dead horses litter the screen. The countless wounded and dead were left on the battlefield for the rats to eat. The bright red blood running off soldiers’ bodies like water is gut turning.
In an odd rebuttal, the soldiers smile and laugh at the camera when they are resting. Everyday banter and pranks, drinking tea and playing cards occupy them in between battles. Shots of soldiers sleeping in the trenches, lying down or standing up, and having to drink polluted water from old red gas cans were everyday experiences at the front. These century-old historical films have become clear and tactile.
The 124 veterans whose voices guide the viewer though the movie did not see themselves as victims, despite the horrors they survived. With pragmatism and pride, many said they would do it all again, enjoying the camaraderie; one vet said he liked the war. Some joined up for the adventure, and others surreptitiously joined the army underage, one as young as 14.
Approached by the British Imperial War Museum, Jackson was asked to make a unique film using their vast library of World War I film footage to commemorate the centennial of the war’s armistice.
Jackson searched through 100 hours of footage and 600 hours of interviews, restoring footage for the documentary and colorizing them. Most of the time and budget spent on the documentary was used for the astonishingly real-looking colorization.
The documentary is engrossing. The viewer feels empathy for the combatants and relates to them on a moving and personal level. “They Shall Not Grow Old” is a fanfare saluting the soldiers that survived the Great War and the 1 million that did not.