War was hell. It still is, of course, but today’s endless wars feel simultaneously, paradoxically immediate via the 24-hour news cycle, and strangely distant, as if viewed through the pixelated lens of a drone hovering high above yet within the battlespace. Commissioned by the British Imperial War Museum and the BBC to commemorate the November 2018 centenary of the end of World War I, Peter Jackson’s remarkably immediate and visceral documentary seeks to immerse the viewer in the banal and horrifying realties of "The Great War" and succeeds on nearly every level imaginable. (Audiences will be thankful that Jackson and his crack team of restorationists were unable to restore the particular odors associated with trench warfare, although the perpetual stench is briefly commented on.)
They Shall Not Grow Old begins with a preface from the director, who explains that five years ago the Imperial War Museum approached him with some 600 hours of raw, never-before-seen footage from the Western Front and asked him to craft a doc that would bring the war to end all wars to modern moviegoers in “a fresh and original way.” Jackson, a longtime World War I aficionado whose paternal grandfather enlisted, agreed to take on the Herculean task of restoring the original but highly degraded, herky-jerky, 14-frames-per-second footage. Paired with interviews with surviving British soldiers recorded in the 1960s and 1970s, the end result goes far beyond the simple colorization of moldering battlefield documentation. It restores the humanity of the combatants, both the British and, surprisingly, the German. Ultimately, it’s a you-are-there time capsule of enormous emotional and historical importance.
Jackson edited the 600 hours of film he was given into a relatively narrow field of view, excluding aerial dogfights and other key aspects of the first mechanized war. Instead, he focuses exclusively on what it was like to be a common soldier caught up in a most uncommon conflict. As one unnamed interviewee says, the war began with men on horseback wielding sabers and ended with mustard gas and tanks. The voices of these long-gone soldiers recall (with stiff upper lips largely in place) the rats, the lice, the sodden winters, and the endless shelling, while the crisp, restored images no longer flicker in and out, ghostlike, but return vividly to life and in 3-D. Jackson’s aesthetic choice to bookend his film with 2-D, unrestored black-and-white footage elicits gasps when the documentary proper begins and suddenly, for the first time since the Armistice, all’s palpably unquiet on the Western Front.
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