With the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies already under his belt, director Peter Jackson is someone who seems to love nothing more than a challenge. The more daunting, the better. With his latest project, he’s taken on another epic one: How to make World War I – an event that’s now 100 years in the past – seem fresh to moviegoers who regard it as history as ancient as the Pharaohs.
With his haunting and vibrant new documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, Jackson was tasked by the Imperial War Museum to rummage through their vast World War I archives and present them in a way that speaks to a 21st-century audience. He accomplishes his mission beautifully, bringing the fading past to life with extraordinary urgency.
Jackson and his team digitally restored 100 hours of footage of British soldiers on the Western Front – a harrowing theater of combat marked by physically and psychologically grueling trench warfare, horrific Mustard Gas attacks, and an entire generation’s loss of innocence. By coupling century-old footage with the voice-over accounts of veterans recorded in the ‘60s and ‘70s, he has come up with a sort of magic trick that hits you in the gut.
Nowhere is this feat more stunning than 25 minutes into the film, when the jerky, hand-cranked black-and-white images we’ve been watching transition into 3-D color. In that moment, you experience an uncanny sensation, where suddenly these young soldiers – some just naïve, eager boys in their early teens – seem to come alive, speaking to us directly and with immediacy, closing the gap of time. It’s a totally immersive experience unlike anything you’ve seen before.
There is a sort of gee-whiz beauty in the technical feats Jackson has pulled off. But also ugliness – the ugliness of war: Dead bodies piled one on top of another being swarmed by rats; amputations to stave off gangrene; lice, dysentery, and the everyday horrors of life on the front that few civilians back in England would ever be able to truly comprehend. Now, 100 years later, the dead speak to us. And finally, we can understand…to a degree.
That is the miracle of They Shall Not Grow Old. Even after sitting through the film’s 99 minutes, we may not truly know what these baby-faced soldiers went through. But there’s at least a better understanding. And, in that, Jackson has provided an admirable service that never, not even for a second, feels like a dry history lesson. A