The title from Peter Jackson’s WWI documentary They Shall Not Grow Old is taken from a Laurence Binyon poem of that period, which contains the line “They shall grow not old.”
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Jackson transposed “grow” and “not,” perhaps to suit the modern ear. There’s no doubt that he’s changed the century-old footage used in his film to suit the modern eye, with impressive results. The Lord of the Rings director spent five years looking through WWI film from Britain’s Imperial War Museum, finding material that could be restored and made vivid for contemporary audiences (the same process he’s now using to make a film from 55 hours of home movies shot by the Beatles during the recording of Let It Be).
The most obvious and bold decision was to add color to the 100-year-old footage of British (and colonial) soldiers training and ultimately fighting in France, where Jackson traveled to take color photographs so that he could add authentic hues to scenes of men in combat, in trenches, in field hospitals, or relaxing away from the front.
Color, though, was the culmination of a much longer and more wide-ranging technical process. Jackson and his team first cleaned up and added definition to the old, washed-out footage, which had been copied so often that details were blurred. Then he synchronized the old footage (filmed at speeds ranging from 12 to 18 frames per second) to match the 24 frames per second used in modern projection. Artists digitized the original film, then inserted new frames — the way you would make a cartoon flip book function more fluidly by adding intervening images until the movement becomes smoother.
Color was added on top of all that, as was upgraded sound. Jackson recorded the sounds of period weapons for the soundtrack, and in some cases hired lip-readers to deduce what soldiers in the footage were saying, and hired actors to provide dialogue. In one case — a scene of an officer addressing his troops on the eve of battle — his researchers identified the regimental insignia of the solders and dug through War Museum papers to find the actual transcript of the officer’s speech, which can be heard in They Shall Not Grow Old. (Jackson reveals details of the process in a featurette that follows the closing credits).
Jackson’s goal is to make the obsolete and near-ruined footage seem plausibly (and sometimes astonishingly) like something newly filmed — to bring WWI out of the archives into the present, around the 100th anniversary of the war’s end on Nov. 11, 1918. Questions can be raised about the propriety of modifying archival material in the context of a documentary, but Jackson answers them with a clever editing decision — highlighting the contrast between the footage he found and the footage he altered.
The first 15 minutes of the movie show us unimproved images of the recruiting and training process. When the men arrive in France and the fighting starts, we see a quivering black-and-white image come suddenly to life, via colors and high-definition detail and convincing movement. The soldiers come to life as well, and the film’s title takes on new meaning.
Binyon wrote of men killed in action, who would not grow old alongside surviving veterans. Jackson brings that theme home by showing us the soldiers as living, laughing, shell-shocked, terrified human beings — one striking image shows men about to leave the safety of a sunken road to engage the enemy. History records that nearly all were killed, and They Shall Not Grow Old lingers on the trembling face of a young man who seems to know what is about to happen.
The film is narrated not by historians, but by soldiers, drawing on audiotape of veterans who spoke to the BBC in 1964, and it provides a complement to the “doughboy” focus of the film. They Shall Not Grow Old avoids geopolitics to concentrate on the lives of the common soldier and the reality of trenches — the horseplay, camaraderie, boredom, disease, squalor, and terror that were all part of life on the front. It’s a sobering, moving success.
Directed by Peter Jackson.
Parents guide: R (violence)
Running time: 1 hour, 39 mins.