When Peter Jackson was tasked by the BBC and the Imperial War Museum with making a film about World War I in time for the centennial of the Armistice that ended the Great War, the director wanted to avoid presenting the material as a simple, dry history lesson. He sought to make a fresh experience to capture the attention of modern audiences.
His resulting documentary, "They Shall Not Grow Old," breathes new life into 100-year-old footage from the trenches and creates an astonishing window into the past. Rather than a straight battle-by-battle recounting, Jackson’s film is more an impressionistic portrait of war seen through the eyes of the men who lived through it.
"They Shall Not Grow Old" will screen at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 23, at the Manship Theatre.
Jackson, the director of the "Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" trilogies, was given access to a hundred hours of silent footage of British soldiers on the Western Front, and he and his team set about digitally restoring the film, adding color and layers of sound. Along with dialogue, explosions and other sounds that could be expected on a battlefield, the freshly restored images are also paired with first-hand audio accounts from veterans recorded during the 1960s and '70s.
Those men offer recollections of their experiences before, during and just after the war, and the chorus of disembodied voices adds an urgency to the images we see. The effect is to take something as enormous and incomprehensible in scope as a world war and make it shockingly intimate.
The soldiers were mostly naive young men — many not past their early teens — who found themselves tossed into the unknown, facing death firsthand. Reframing some of the footage, Jackson occasionally presents penetrating close-ups that allow us to study the young faces. Often we don’t need their words to sense the physical and psychological toll the war took.
The documentary offers a look into daily life in the trenches, what it felt like to experience the horrors of combat for the first time, and the experience of returning home when many friends and peers never did. It’s heartbreaking to hear the stories about struggling to reintegrate into civilian life and a society that often didn’t know what to do with those returning.
With his typical attention to detail, Jackson maintains an eye for authenticity. My favorite anecdote from the fascinating 30-minute making-of featurette that accompanies the film was learning that if Jackson’s crew of restorationists were ever unsure of the exact color to make a uniform or the precise sound made by the era’s artillery, they simply went to the director’s extensive collection of World War I artifacts and pulled out the clothing they needed or set off one of his canons for themselves.
The crew also talks about the less obvious work they did for the film, like adjusting the speed of the footage from a rate of 13 frames-per-second (which is what creates the jerky, sped-up effect we associate with old footage) to 24 frames-per-second in order to create the impression of normal, realistic movement.
Not every new addition or change was absolutely necessary — there’s a version of the film that goes a step further by converting the footage into 3D — but the results are nonetheless incredible.
"They Shall Not Grow Old" is clearly a personal project for the filmmaker and it’s not surprising to learn that Jackson’s grandfather (to whom the film is dedicated) fought in the Great War. What the director was able to accomplish and the way his film brings the past so vibrantly to life is as impressive as it is valuable.
Jackson removes the distancing effect of watching archival material, engaging and immersing modern audiences in a way never done before. “They Shall Not Grow Old” is at once a technical marvel and a deeply moving viewing experience.
'They Shall Not Grow Old'
SCREENING: At 2 p.m. Sunday, June 23, at the Manship Theatre, 100 Lafayette St. $9.50, call for discounts. (225) 344-0334; manshiptheatre.org.
MPAA RATING: Rated R for disturbing war images
EXCELLENT (****), GOOD (***), FAIR (**), POOR (*)