Utilizing the latest in film restoration and colorization techniques, renowned directed Sir Peter Jackson has brought to life the films of World War I battlefields.
By Seth Marshall
In the past 5-6 years, a number of films have sprung forth which focus on the First World War, presumably to exploit the fact that the centennial era of that colossal conflict was at hand. Many of these films, some set in fact, others not, succeeded or failed to various degrees. Few have successfully related the origins, events, and consequences of World War I. That war was so huge, so all-encompassing and it’s effects so far-reaching that it is difficult for singular films to fully express its entirety. More effective films have aimed a level below- to describe how a specific nation or people experienced the war. In 2018, Sir Peter Jackson, the well-known director who filmed The Lord of the Rings trilogy during the late 1990s and early 2000s, released his tribute to the First World War, They Shall Not Grow Old. At long last, this author has seen the film and now dedicates some writing space to a review.
It is worth noting for the outset to American audiences that this film is not about the Americans. It is about the British Expeditionary Force, and how they experienced that war. If you, an American, wish to know about the American experience, I would highly recommend that you watch PBS’ series The Great War, or perhaps read The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and their Forgotten World War, by Richard Rubin. Mr. Rubin’s book in particular is a fantastic portrait of American involvement in the war, and features as its centerpiece interviews with the last remaining American veterans of the First World War. Rubin made this interviews during the early- to mid-2000s, when hundreds then dozens were still living.
I digress. What Peter Jackson has done with his latest film, They Shall Not Grow Old, is to bridge our present with the world of the First World War. Never have I seen with such striking clarity life in the trenches. Using a variety of modern film techniques, Jackson stabilized jerky pictures, he cleaned up frames to increase fidelity, employed one of the best colorization teams in the world, and even went so far as to bring on criminal investigators who specialized in literally reading lips- in doing so, he was able to determine what the soldiers being filmed were saying, and then had English actors speak the dialogue to lend additional authenticity. Through over 90 minutes of film, not once does a narrator appear on screen. Jackson tells his story entirely through the effects of these old films and through the actual words of veterans from the war. Using recordings made by the Imperial War Museum and the BBC during the 1950s and 1960s for anniversaries, Jackson is able to use the words of these veterans to produce his narrative.
Viewers should watch the film with the expectation that it will inform them on all aspects of the First World War, or even that it presents a timeline of events, battles, or campaigns. Jackson himself comments on this in a special feature, saying that the war was far too large and complex to cram into 90-120 minutes. For example, the air war, the war at sea, the home front, cultural and societal issues, just to name a few, are not discussed. Instead of a large history of the First World War, Jackson instead chose to produce a microhistory of how the typical British soldier experienced the war, and he showcases it with brilliant film restoration. As the director commented in a special feature, They Shall Not Grow Old is a film made by a non-historian for non-historian. In spite of this, Jackson has created a fantastic micro-history of life as the British soldiers experienced it in the trenches. Jackson’s interest in the war is profound- he owns a collection of First World War aircraft, uniforms, and weapons. Amazingly, his own collection was used during the production- uniforms and pieces of kit were examined and compared with their black & white equals on-screen, then the colors from the real-life examples were used by the colorization team to improve the realism of the revitalized film. Jackson’s weapons, including guns and artillery, were used to provide accurate sounds of the battlefield.
Many documentaries and TV specials in the past 10-15 years had used colorization as a tool to try and bring to life (at least for contemporary audiences) old wars anew. More often than not, these efforts are done quickly and cheaply, often without care for cleaning up footage matching sounds, and often without even using available interviews from those who were there. These films may tell a historical narrative, but they lack the kind of craftsmanship which Jackson has demonstrated with They Shall Not Grow Old. This film is something special- it’s quite rare to see such attention to detail. I can only hope that with the methods used in this film, Jackson or perhaps others will go on to make more outstanding productions. For the reader, I strongly recommend seeing this film. Its merits are such that even an American audience would be impressed at its presentation.