A World War I documentary in 3D with colorized archival footage that looks as new as the day it was shot. What sounds like an impossible feat becomes a riveting reality in the hands of director Peter Jackson and his New Zealand Weta crew of restoration miracle workers, led by digital VFX supervisor Wayne Stables. In They Shall Not Grow Old, the lord of The Lord of the Rings uses a treasure trove of material — more than 600 hours worth — from England’s Imperial War Museum to bring the Great War to vivid life.
Starting with the grainy, blurry, black-and-white newsreel clips that we’ve come to accept as historical record, Jackson expands the screen and then fills it to show off the visual wonders that are now within reach in the digital age. Dust, scratches and tears have been removed. You won’t believe your eyes. But They Shall Not Grow Old — which takes its name from Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem “For the Fallen” — is way more than a gimmick to sell this-just-in technology. The battle scenes emerge with a stirring urgency, along with the grim realities of life in the lice-and-rat-infested trenches. Still, it’s the faces of the British soldiers — some as young as 14 — that burn into your memory. Rendered with a close-up proximity that captures the lively humor and camaraderie of this band of brothers, these faces also reveal the bone-weary fatigue that comes with living in daily proximity to death. One interlude, in which the soldiers peacefully interact with the German enemy during a cease-fire, vehemently indicts the moral vacuum of war.
In place of live audio recordings, unachievable at the time, Jackson uses BBC interviews with surviving soldiers that were made after the war while memories were still fresh. Jackson doesn’t crowd the screen with names, dates, maps and charts. He lets the soldiers speak for themselves as images flash by on screen. The usually stilted film clips — shot at 13 frames per second — have been sped up to the contemporary standard of 24 frames per second. And the result is startling in its immediacy and intimacy. Though They Shall Not Grow Old was created to mark the centenary of WWI, Jackson does not hesitate to make it personal. He dedicates the film to own grandfather, who served with the 2nd South Wales Borderers infantry regiment from 1910 to 1919. Technology has allowed Jackson to erase the barriers of time and speak to a new generation about what war does to youth. His humane and heartbreaking film is a profound achievement.