As both a film nerd and a history nerd, I have a standing protest against the very idea behind the new WWI documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old.” Gimmicks like colorization and adding 3D and sound to historical footage are typically barriers to the original, first-take view of history. Not cool.
But after seeing this movie I’m ready to blow that sentiment right out my ear.
This project began when the BBC approached director Peter Jackson about marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I by giving him access to their archives and giving him complete creative freedom as long as it was respectful to the soldiers depicted.
Jackson took the grainy, black-and-white, and soundless footage and ran it through various computer programs to reveal extraordinary detail hidden in these old films.
The addition of color plus slowing the film down make it feel less jerky and more contemporary, and the result is almost like someone hopped into the trenches in 1917 and started recording with an iPhone. After Jackson adds 3D to the images, adding depth to the film, you are literally able to see and experience the First World War in a way that hasn’t been possible for over a century.
The restoration is the star of the show here and Jackson fills in the historical narrative by using archival interviews with WWI veterans as the voiceovers for the footage. The focus here isn’t on specific battles or dates and places but is instead on the soldiers themselves and the human experience of going to war.
Jackson also doesn’t shy away from the horrors of battle as dead bodies ripped apart by shrapnel make regular appearances and the bright red blood of the soldier’s injuries can be jarring.
World War I is a war that tends to get glossed over in our popular imagination even though millions of people died fighting it. To see it brought back to life so vividly shows that history is not some grainy and dusty forgotten artifact, but instead is vibrant and full and wholly relevant to the world we find ourselves in today.
The potential of reviving even more early films to such a high standard is exciting to even a nerdy purist like myself. Jackson deserves a lot of praise for taking on this effort and doing it in a way that makes these windows into the past a little wider and a little clearer.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” is rated R for disturbing war images.