Synopsis: A documentary about World War I with never-before-seen footage to commemorate the centennial of the end of the war.
Director: Peter Jackson
Running Length: 99 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: With an abundance of celebrated feature films, made-for-TV movies, television series, and award-winning documentaries, I feel like I have a pretty well rounded knowledge of World War II. I’m not sure why, but it seems like that particular time in history has provided a wealth of opportunities to highlight the men and women that served their country and the horrors of the war they were fighting. I feel more than a little bit guilty in admitting I’m not nearly as familiar with the first World War; so, while I know the basics, it’s been some time since I’ve done any kind of deeper dive into it.
Spearheaded by Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Frighteners) the new documentary They Shall Not Grow Old isn’t the first film to explore the hell of the battlefield of The First World War but it’s in the way it is delivered that sets it apart (and, in some cases, above) similarly themed films. Using archival video from the Imperial War Museum and oral histories gathered from British servicemen, Jackson has crafted a strikingly immediate film that puts audiences right into the trenches. With a personal connection to several of the soldiers that fought in the war, Jackson’s first documentary is (of course) a film that looks beautiful but also has a significant abundance of heart.
When war breaks out in July of 1914, a once-idyllic façade in England cracks, thrusting men as young as 15 into service fighting for their country. Though the 120 interviewees speaking aren’t identified until the end credits, each have a story about how they came to sign up and ship out into a war zone from which they may never return. These early sequences showcase an England and a people that might have been lost forever without this valuable film stock. Seeing the faces of the enlisted men without a clue of what they were about to face is haunting. The black and white footage that accompanies these early sections of the film (including establishing shots of soldiers training for battle and traveling to the frontline) gives way to a goosebump inducing moment when Jackson colorizes the film.
In transitioning to color, Jackson somehow makes things feel more “real” not just for the soldiers but for audiences as well. No shoddy colorization like you may have seen in old I Love Lucy episodes or that awful version of It’s a Wonderful Life, Jackson’s special effects team has painstakingly taken care in making wise choices in color and tone. It’s an astonishing effect and coupled with added sound effects, vocals, and a few tweaks to the film here and there, it helps the footage to feel brand new. Some showings of the film will also be in 3D and here is another example where I think the upgrade is worth it, adding that extra depth helped bring some of these amazing images even further into focus.
If there’s one thing that keeps the movie from being an outright winner it’s a saggy middle that finds Jackson falling into repetition in certain stories and images. I know he didn’t have a lot of material to work with to illustrate specific moments that are described in interviews but there are some images and film footage that are used multiple times to represent several different incidents. These become distracting after a while and near the end there are events described that have no accompanying footage so they are paired with artist renderings instead. All in all, the film feels right on target when the stories being relayed in the voice-overs match up with the film footage (much of which has never been seen prior to this release) is being shown.
While it shouldn’t substitute for some good old fashioned cracking opening of a book, They Shall Not Grow Old is quite a remarkable achievement as a historical documentary. Managing to deliver a unique holistic overview of The Great War using innovative technology and narration culled from interviews by those that lived through it, it’s a sobering experience that benefits from a viewing on a big screen.