Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” is a film like no other. With its colorized and digitally enhanced archival footage, it is a technological marvel and an emotional and deeply personal tribute to the soldiers who fought in the war. Moreover, it is a film that raises intriguing questions about the impact of technology in the presentation and study of history.
But like the war itself, the film doesn’t begin with a dramatic statement. Instead, it starts off slowly, almost unassumingly, as it tells the story of young English men enlisting for the war and training to be soldiers. The footage here is unaltered, as opposed to the later scenes, and like most film from this time period, it appears grainy, choppy and devoid of life. What gives the first part of the film its life, then, is not the visuals, but the witty and colorful voice-overs of British war veterans.
These veterans remain anonymous until the very end of the film, but one thing is made clear from the beginning: Their voices and attitudes are decidedly British. They deliver their stories with a sort of casual and dry indifference, bemoaning the struggles of ill-fitting army boots and the oppressive weight of plum and apple jam. In a particularly startling segment, a series of men describe how they tried to enlist as young as at age 14, and how with a few fudged numbers and a couple of breezy quips about their birthdays, every single one of them was waved right in. With all their wit and personality, the narratives of these men are simply captivating to listen to, and it would be neglectful not to mention that they are a large part of what makes this film so compelling.
The soldiers are soon forced to leave the training grounds, however, and are put on the front lines, and at this point, everything about the film suddenly changes. The black-and-white clips give way to digitally altered footage, displayed in color and with an altered frame rate to remove the quick, choppy movements that Jackson associated with “Charlie Chaplin-type figures.”
Suffice to say, there is nothing remotely comical or Chaplinesque about the effect of this technology in the film. Instead, the pure shock of watching the first enhanced scene — a young-looking soldier making his way onto the battlefield, stumbling over the terrain and gazing around with wide eyes — is an unforgettable experience. It does more than simply humanize these men; it familiarizes them, as though they could be any old acquaintance in the lives of audience members.
Shock seems to be a major factor in this film, as Jackson frequently uses technology to highlight the grotesque and bloody realities of war. At times, this angle is extremely effective — for example, Jackson’s use of close-up shots of lice and rats had audience members squirming in their seats. Other scenes, however, are overwhelmed by the enhanced visuals, to the extent that it is almost impossible to focus on the important accounts of battle being told through voice-overs.
In fact, some of the best uses of this enhancing technology are also the most simplistic in their scope. Perhaps the closest an audience member can come to understanding these men in the trenches is not from the stunning shots of explosions or the loud noises of gunfire, but from quick glimpses of soldiers in their day-to-day lives. Some joke with their friends and show off in front of the camera, such as the stone-faced soldier who picks up a bottle and starts strumming it like guitar, or the energetic young man who tries and fails to keep hold of a frog. Others tend to their wounds, and their limping steps and wincing faces are all the more powerful as they walk past a commanding officer who praises them for their action.
All in all, “They Shall Not Grow Old” should be taken as an experiment in cinematic technology and historical study, and like most experiments, there are times when it doesn’t quite hit the mark. But ultimately, the sheer novelty of seeing vintage footage reimagined and brought to life makes this a film that simply must be seen.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” is now playing at AMC Bay Street.
Contact Lauren Sheehan-Clark at [email protected].