A documentary about World War I with never-before-seen footage to commemorate the centennial of the end of the war.
Before They Shall Not Grow Old begins, Peter Jackson appears to briefly introduce the idea behind the film. The Imperial War Museum approached him to make a documentary using a bunch of their footage, including some that had never been seen before. Jackson explains he was unsure of if he should do the film because he didn’t know what angle to take. A lot of the footage was stuff he grew up seeing on news reels and dissected six ways from Sunday by other filmmakers. As you no doubt know by now if you’ve seen the trailer, Jackson’s take on the documentary would be to restore the footage, colorize it, 3D-ify it, and add realistic sounds. In other words, do all the stuff he did with Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit but with old, World War I footage.
For the most part, the result is incredible. Some how, some way, Peter Jackson pulled off more movie magic and turned, in some cases, almost pitch-black or blindingly-white film into film that is passable as something shot in the near recent past. All of it is not perfect, and it is not HD quality, but then again what would you expect from 100 year-old film that was shot at the beginning of cinema?
The colorized, sound-ify-ed version is the big middle chunk when the soldiers were in the trenches. This is surrounded by black-and-white footage of soldiers and citizens at home before and after the war. And throughout the film, the underlying narration is provided by voices of the soldiers who actually fought in WWI, culled down from over 600 hours of interviews provided by the BBC. Jackson’s goal was to paint a picture of a life in the day of a soldier, and he succeeds. Yes, there are the tanks and the cannons and other forms of “war stuff”, but the best part of the film is the look into the soldier’s lives. What were the trenches like? How did the soldiers entertain themselves? Why did they enlist in the first place? These are the basic questions that we hear and see answers to.
My biggest complaint/request would be to drop the color from the film. Everything else Jackson did to modernize the film succeeded, including the 3D (although it doesn’t add that much and could also be done without), but the colorization left a lot to be desired. Most of the film it’s passable, a few shots it is phenomenal, but others it is terrible. Shots with large amounts of people, or close-ups of faces just don’t pass the snuff test. Skin looks completely air-brushed and lacking any defining features, not to mention it has a bit of displacement. Of course, there’s a reason for most of these problems and that’s bad film to begin with. When the film is warped or lacks information to start, it’s hard to put back in.
It doesn’t help that after the film, Peter Jackson comes back for an extra 30ish minutes behind-the-scenes featurette to show how they accomplished what they did. And, as part of this documentary about the documentary, we see the restored film footage before they colorized it. And it is phenomenal, full stop. You know what I said about warped film and lack of information two sentences ago, well those problems somehow don’t exist in their black-and-white restoration. Whatever magic they were able to muster was fully on display before they added color, and if the whole film could be in black-and-white, I would take that version.
The one exception is the colorization of the environment. Watching They Shall Not Grow Old I was struck by how life-like the grass and dirt and the trenches were. The people and the clothes, not that impressive. Everything else, wowza. Sure enough, in the featurette after the credits, Jackson says they spent the most colorization time and effort on the environmental parts of the film. So either humans really are just that much harder to colorize (we do move after all), or they should’ve been given a larger budget and more time to work on the human colorization.
No matter how you slice it, what Jackson accomplished with They Shall Not Grow Old is pretty darn impressive. Sure, parts of the colorization aren’t perfect and distracting at times, but as a whole this is a compelling documentary, masterfully told and beautifully rendered. Unfortunately, it will not qualify for the Academy Awards this year or next year, which is a bit of a mistake on the studio’s part, but you should go see it in theaters if/while you have the chance.
4 out of 5