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They Shall Not Grow Old
Theater cinema

The much-praised New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson brings the same zest for digital technology and bad storytelling that epitomize his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies to this historical documentary about World War I. The BBC and the Imperial War Museum commissioned this film for the hundredth anniversary of the Armistice that ended the bloody conflict on November 11, 1918. They provided Jackson hundreds of hours of original WWI footage, most of it unseen by anyone outside the Museum's archivists, and reels upon reels of BBC and IWM audio interviews with British servicemen who fought in the trenches, recorded in the 1960s and ‘70s. Jackson and a team of preservationists undertook the heroic effort of not only visually restoring all this footage but also speed-correcting it to play more consistently. They then take the extra steps of painstakingly colorizing the footage, reframing and panning and scanning the predominantly wide, static images, and converting everything to stereoscopic 3D.

They Shall Not Grow Old doesn’t tell the history of WWI so much as provide a glimpse of what the British infantrymen who fought in the European theater looked like, while listening to their decades-later reflections on the lead-up to war, the process of joining up, the battles they were part of, and what it was like to return home. Much of the footage is amazing to see, and some of the recollections are insightful. But while Jackson has brought color and depth to the 100-year-old footage, his film is distinctly monochromatic and flat.

The structure and pacing of They Shall Not Grow Old are as relentlessly monotonous as Jackson’s J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations and his abysmal King Kong remake.  The plodding tempo of each sequence, and the myriad voices we hear, all blend together into a forgettable mush. Since, understandably, little combat photography was taken in WWI, much of what we see are soldiers waiting to fight, recovering from a fight, and their endless hours of downtime between shellings—all of which could engage and engross if the film provided the viewer time to breathe, reflect, and contextualize what we see and hear.  Jackson spares no effort or expense in creating a rich soundscape for this picture—from recording actual artillery used in the war to hiring lip readers to decipher what people in various shots are saying so he can record actors speaking those words with the greatest accuracy. He visited many of the locations where the images were photographed to make sure the color of the grass and dirt was as correct as humanly possible. As impressive as all this attention to detail is, it doesn’t compensate for the fact that Jackson is neither a historian nor an experienced documentarian, and he doesn’t seem to have the time, knowledge, or skill to craft a compelling and informative work of non-fiction.

He sets his bar low and pats himself on the back for it. In his on-camera introduction and summation, which bookend the feature, Jackson explains how he chose not to attempt making a definitive film about WWI and instead wanted to create a movie that would give audiences a genuine feeling, experience, and understanding of what it was like to be a soldier at the front. But if that’s the goal of this picture it’s an unqualified failure. Watching They Shall Not Grow Old doesn’t make you feel like a WWI infantryman, it gives you the distinct sensation of sitting in a theater with 3D glasses on staring at enhanced footage of varying degrees of quality—some of it zoomed in to such an extreme degree that the film grain awkwardly swims around the digitally smoothed-out features of the faces and fabrics.

The embellished images are meant to look like contemporary footage, bringing the hitherto anonymous men to life for modern viewers. But at best, I can only say it successfully looks different from the scratched-up, sped-up black and white pictures we would expect to see from this era. And the monotony of so many interchangeable narrators eventually makes you feel like you’ve fallen asleep in a looping museum installation about the surface details of fighting trench warfare. Despite the movie’s pre-war, wartime, and post-war structure, everything feels homogenous and interchangeable. Despite the 99-minute running time, no space is provided for meaningful reflection on what fighting the war was like. Each fleeting detail, from how well the uniforms fit to what it was like smelling dead bodies and gangrenous wounds for days on end, is given equal weight and presented with the same bland detachment.

Of course, the work the filmmakers have done in restoring all this invaluable footage must be commended. After the documentary, Jackson invites the audience to stay for a behind-the-scenes look at how it was made. We’re shown the meticulous process of speed correcting the inconsistent frame rates—often from hand-cracked cameras—of each piece of footage so that every movement possesses the standard 24 frames-per-second motion moviegoers have grown accustomed to as “natural.” We witness how images within footage so underexposed it looks black, or so overexposed it’s practically clear, were digitally uncovered to reveal important shots. But we also glimpse footage housed in the IWM archive that captures many fascinating aspects of the war, which could have given the picture real depth, scope, and broader historical relevance. It is as if everyone connected to this project was more concerned with having a movie ready on the Armistice centennial than in creating a film worthy of all the newly refurbished material they worked so hard to freshen up. 

A great documentary on WWI has yet to be made, which is a shame because very few people know much about why the conflict was fought and why “The War to End All Wars” didn’t. There are also just a handful of excellent fiction films that explore World War I:  William Wellman’s Wings (1927), Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1971), Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981), Simon Wincer’s The Lighthorsemen (1987), and Steven Spielberg’s War Horse (2011) top a very short list. They Shall Not Grow Old, for all the intrinsic value of its restored footage, sadly does not join that tiny collection of movies that truly illuminate WWI for all of us who did not fight it.

Twitter Capsule:
Potential for producing 1st great WWI documentary squandered by amateur historian / purveyor of rambling CGI spectacle. Jackson brings depth and color to priceless 100-year-old archive footage but renders a distinctly flat, monochromatic movie.

Directed by Peter Jackson
Produced by Peter Jackson and Clare Olssen

Editing: Jabez Olssen

Runtime: 99 min
Release Date: 09 November 2018
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1