Brandon Shillingford, Contributing Writer
Peter Jackson produces a momentous show of technical mastery in “They Shall Not Grow Old.” Compiling more than 600 hours of century-old archived footage and audio from World War I, the creators colorized, restored and projected the footage in 3D. It is one of the most groundbreaking technical achievements I have ever had the luxury of witnessing.
Jackson has long been an innovator when it comes to filmmaking technology. Whether it be experimentation with frame rates or visual effects in films like his famous “The Lord of the Rings” franchise, Jackson has always had a knack for trying techniques that challenge his directorial abilities.
He also strives to create work that has immense personal value to him. And his newest documentary is his most ambitious and personal project yet. “They Shall Not Grow Old” is more than just a movie for Jackson. It is a love letter to his grandfather who served in the war.
The film begins in a very tight frame with hazy black-and-white footage of soldiers marching with narration from World War I veterans. About 20 minutes in, the picture expands, the image sharpens and color washes across the screen. Color brings these images to life, depicting the perspectives of the young soldiers.
As the film moves forward, the narration guides the audience through the footage, and the men share anecdotes about their experiences on the Western Front. Although many British soldiers were too young to fight, the men tell stories of officers who ignored this rule because winning the war was so important. They often ate the same breakfast every day, and they traded their food with the French for cigarettes.
Some might consider the narration unnecessary, but for me, it’s an essential part of the viewing experience. Without the tender and eloquent narration, the film becomes a series of cold and harsh images with very little context of their true meaning. But an image of a young man with his lung hanging out becomes undeniably more powerful when coupled with a soldier recounting his experience in the background.
The passion Jackson infuses into his work is truly unparalleled. After the credits, an additional 30-minute documentary takes the viewer behind the scenes and through the process of bringing his project to the screen. He details the painstaking methods behind restoring and colorizing the shrunken and damaged celluloid film.
In one particularly fascinating story, Jackson recounts how he traveled to Belgium to see the exact green shade of the grass in order to color the film.
In the mini-documentary, Jackson discusses his family’s involvement in the war and the impact it had on his life and career as a filmmaker. It’s a deeply intimate film for him, acting as a bridge between his child and adulthood. The film speaks as a tribute to the losses that continue to affect him today.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” is a stunning and profound work of art. Peter Jackson brings the men and women from World War I to life in a masterful technological feat of filmmaking prowess that fans of Jackson, and of film, cannot afford to miss.