Filmmaking is an art form that is very technical, with new inventions and feats throughout its century long history. From silent films to talkies, black and white to color, special effects to visual effects, and from film to digital, the filmmaking landscaping is always changing. There’s always debate whether it’s for better or worse, or just down to personal preference, but there’s no doubt that filmmakers love tinkering with the equipment to see just what they can pull off. Sometimes, they pull off something that feels legitimately magical.

They Shall Not Grow Old is a World War I documentary presented to us by Peter Jackson. This isn’t your typical war documentary, though. We’re invited into very personal look into the lives of the soldiers before, during, and after the war. Their story is brought to life by fully colorized and restored footage, with voice actors providing the dialogue. It’s a cinema warfare experience like none other. 

What sets this documentary apart from practically any other World War I documentary is that it doesn’t have a narrator at all. All of the narration is made up of real audio recordings of soldiers who served in the Great War. So, right off the bat, there are no pretenses with a famous narrator just reading information with some soundbites here and there. It’s all true, authentic accounts from the people who were really there and each one was stirring. Jackson and his team went through hundreds of hours of recordings from veterans, so I can only imagine the plethora of just as amazing stories that were left untold. Still, nothing quite beats a firsthand account from the people who were actually there. 

It’s silly that I didn’t really think about it before, but there was something Jackson mentioned in the short post-film documentary about how the soldiers didn’t see the war in grainy, low-resolution black and white like we do. They saw it in real, full blown color. We can’t fathom the amount of the blood, dirt, grime, mud, soot, and who knows what else that these men went through, but this documentary is the closest we can possibly get to it. It’s a relative thing, I’m sure, but I would never really want to go into battle, lest the deadliest war in the world’s history, in this case. I know I’ll never understand the true experience of fighting in a war, but this film really gives insight to how the soldiers dealt with their situations. You obviously don’t get the more intense battle footage, as no cameraman in their right mind back then would lug that thing onto the battlefield. You don’t need it, though, because the soldier’s voiceovers are all you need to get into their shoes. There’s even a bit of humor throughout, thanks to the British’s brand of dry wit, which just made it all the more human. You feel like you learn who these people are, even if you don’t know their names.

There is a somewhat charming naivety to it all, especially during the first half hour. The opening footage is entirely unaltered, complete with grainy, black and white film shot in high and low frame rates, all presented in 4:3 aspect ratio. This sequence covers the journey of the men enlisting and preparing for battle, featuring many different accounts from various soldiers. It’s hard to fathom the countless lives lost throughout warfare, but you just can’t believe your ears when you have kids, literal 14, 15, and 16-year-old kids, talking about how they lied about being 18 in order to join the fight. I was an immature high schooler during that time. Obviously, things were much different 100 years ago, but the fact that we had teenagers fighting through these horrendous conditions really puts things into perspective.

It’s when the soldiers first march onto the battlefield where Jackson’s vision really takes off. There’s a wide shot of dozens of soldiers marching down a field. It starts off black and white, grainy, and all that, just like the opening, but it slowly zooms in, the picture gradually filling with color and increasing in detail and resolution. “Breathtaking” is a word that’s impact has been decreased by how often it’s used, but to me, this sequence was literally breathtaking. I really couldn’t believe my eyes and as the shot went on and on, becoming more and more detailed, I noticed I literally wasn’t breathing. It might just be the most impactful way I’ve ever seen the evolution of filmmaking technology be displayed. The colorization is impressively detailed, down to the different shades of green used for the grass and the soldier’s uniforms, with it never looking artificial. The lipreading and voice acting was also terrifically done, making you feel like you’re actually there in the thick of it.

When the war is all said and done and the soldiers return home, the film slowly returns to the old black and white style. Some veterans recount the positive and negative experiences of returning home, and how their time in war has affected them. It felt like we formed a relationship with these people during the middle, color portion and with it reverting back to film from the 1910’s, it’s like they’re fading back into history. However, Their impact has never faded.

It’s even more impressive after watching the post-film doc. While it’s only a half hour, it’s detailed enough to show all of the steps they went through. Jackson has a personal relationship to the war, with his grandfather and uncle serving in it, and he felt it was his duty to help bring their part of the story to life. It’s intensely personal, which is incredibly evident in how much blood, sweat, and tears Jackson and his team poured into this. The most amazing part of all is the film restoration, where some old film strips were nearly black and impossible to see due to degradation and the technological limitations of the time. You can sort of make out a group of soldiers firing artillery, but you see it clear as day in the restored footage, like it was just shot yesterday. It truly is an amazing technical feat and we can only hope it gets utilized for different aspects of history from filmmakers who are just as passionate. 

Jackson mentioned at the very end of the post-film doc that he hopes this encourages others to ask their service member relatives about their experiences. I’ve done that before with my grandfather who served in the Korean War. He luckily didn’t see any combat, but he still had some interesting stories to tell. Everybody has a different story, but that doesn’t make any of them more or less important. Like I mentioned, we don’t even know these soldier’s names, but they all made a massive impact on the world and our lives. One of the best ways we could honor them is through bringing their story to life in the most accurate way possible. They Shall Not Grow Old is not just a technical feat, but also a prime example of how documentaries can be used to tell these amazing real life stories. 


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