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Jackson documentary brings new life to an old war


On Monday afternoon, I attended a special screening of Peter Jackson's documentary film "They Shall Not Grow Old." It's the second time the film has been shown locally, and probably will be the last time before it's made available for wide release. What follows is my review of the film, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

We’ve all seen films from a century ago. The scenes move in a herky-jerky manner that, combined with black-and-white imagery, give the people moving through them a look that seems as old as the fashions of the clothes they wear and the models of the cars they drive.

That was the challenge facing filmmaker Peter Jackson when he was approached in 2015 by the Imperial War Museum of London. Noting that the 100-year anniversary of the end of World War I was then three years away, the museum wanted to commission a documentary feature using the archived film footage it had in storage.

From that challenge, Jackson fashioned a film he titles “They Shall Not Grow Old,” which is scheduled for a wide theatrical release on February first.

Jackson took his film’s title from the 1914 poem “For the Fallen,” written by the English poet Laurence Binyon, which was fortuitous. Because Jackson, whose own grandfather fought in the war, was intent not just on documenting the conflict but on making it come alive for contemporary audiences.

Working with more than 100 hours of vintage film stock, and marrying the scenes with interviews of some 120 veterans – making the men de facto narrators of what we see – Jackson fashioned a film that puts the audience right in the trenches.

And while he includes only a few actual battle scenes – the bulky cameras of the era would have made filming such action impossible – Jackson improvised, using illustrations from comic books (though doing his best to moderate their innate propaganda).

Then again, actual battle is only a small part of Jackson’s focus. He’s much more interested in the day-to-day life in the trenches – where men (and they were almost exclusively men) slept, where they ate and the many privations they withstood, such as mud that was so deep and thick it could swallow a person whole, bad rations, rats that feasted on anything they could find (including corpses), continual bombardment and the lack of sleep.

Jackson captures it all. Or, more correctly, he transforms footage shot by a number of nameless camera operators into something that feels real by today’s standards. He does so by smoothing out the film speed and by colorizing much of the footage. The result is powerful, almost as if we are looking directly into the past, making it feel vibrant and real instead of merely a dated vision of the distant past.

My only real criticism of “They Shall Not Grow Old” is that Jackson limited his film to life in the trenches of Western Europe. Nowhere are scenes of air combat, of life and death at sea, of the war as it was fought on other fronts – in the Balkans, say, the Middle East or Western Asia.

But, then, Jackson wasn’t making a Ken Burns-type miniseries. His commission was to do exactly what his film manages to do: honor the men who gave all in a war, the original name of which – The War to End All Wars – is as ironic as it is mistaken.

Note: The embed below offers a brief explanation of the painstaking process that Peter Jackson and his team used to convert historical film footage into something that feels more like real life.

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