'They Shall Not Grow Old' Review: Humanity Leaps Off The Screen In Peter Jackson's Vivid World War I Documentary

When I was handed a pair of 3D glasses to watch They Shall Not Grow Old, I rolled my eyes. How could a tired theatrical gimmick possibly add anything to a documentary about World War I? But 15 minutes into Peter Jackson's vivid documentary, the glasses stopped digging into the sides of my head and instead helped transport me into the dazzling, achingly human archival footage that the Oscar-winning director so brilliantly restored.

Culled together from 2,700 hours of faded footage shot firsthand during World War I, They Shall Not Grow Old is a marvel of technological progress. Jackson, in his first documentary as a director, made the World War I film in collaboration with the BBC and London's Imperial War Museum after the latter approached the director for the project in 2015. Jackson immediately jumped to the chance, having nursed a long fascination with World War I due to his British grandfather, Sgt. William Jackson's (to whom the film is dedicated) passing away before Jackson's birth without leaving an account of his experiences during the war.

But rather than delivering a dry report on the events of World War I, Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old embeds the viewer right in the trenches with the soldiers. The film footage is restored and realistically colorized, and lent a real depth and richness by the 3D technology, which manages to bring the 100-year-old footage to crackling, energetic life. The effect is further expanded by the absence of a single narrator. Instead, Jackson uses 600 hours of BBC interviews from 200 soldiers recounting daily life during the war to craft a loose narrative of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young British men who lose that lust for life amid the bloody, grimy trenches of the Western front.

The film opens in grainy black-and-white footage of the daily life and uneasy political uncertainty in Britain leading up to one of the greatest global conflicts in history. But as war breaks out, the traditional 4:3 aspect ratio slowly expands until it fills the screen and, consequently, the viewers' perspectives. The faded black-and-white grain becomes vibrant and smooth, the warm colors slowly grow brighter as if the film was waking from a dream.

From then on, The Shall Not Grow Old becomes shockingly modern. The film operates in medium close-ups and rotoscoped recreations of battles, complete with rattling sound effects of whistling bombs and ambient noise. Chants and bawdy sing-a-longs of the troop song "Mademoiselle from Armentieres" form the majority of the score, while the soldiers' frequent background chatter makes the experience all the more immersive. Together with the masterful sound design and the retiming of the footage from 13 frames a second to 24, the film transforms these faded, distant images of ghosts long since gone from this world into characters that are completely real, and human, and now.

But They Shall Not Grow Old is more than just a stunning technological achievement. It's an utterly human film that dwells on the faces of the soldiers, beaming, laughing, staring at the camera in wide-eyed confusion. Jackson hired forensic lip readers to determine what the soldiers were saying onscreen, and brought on speakers with the matching dialects to give them voice in a painstaking restoration of life in the trenches. More so than the brutal images of carnage and dead bodies piled in the mud — which become doubly visceral in the restored color — the focus on the soldiers' faces are what make this film so powerful and affecting.

The audio accounts from the 120 former soldiers, all recorded while they were in their 60s or 70s, seamlessly form a single narrative as they recount the rowdy camp-like days of their training sessions, to the disturbingly grim realities of life in the trench. But as the soldiers relay their stories, they tell them not with disillusionment but with a tinge of nostalgia — something that is reflected in Jackson's film. They Shall Not Grow Old isn't interested in sociopolitical commentary or statistics. It's interested in turning these statistics into living, breathing human beings. Jackson approaches the Great War with a unique slice-of-life perspective that revives the ghosts from their archival graves, creating a tactile and rich experience that plays like a memory come to life.

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10