Documentaries isn’t my first choice of genre, I’m rather picky in which ones I’ll watch. However so far this year I have partaken in two documentaries that really impressed me. The first is “Whitney” an all access documentary of R&B/Pop star Whitney Houston and the second is director Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old”. Both documentaries scoring my highest grade and becoming two of the best films I’ve seen this year.
Given access to 600 hours and 100 year old archival footage from the Imperial War Museum. Filmmaker Peter Jackson, the visionary behind “The Frighteners”, “King Kong” and both “Lord Of The Rings Trilogy” and “Hobbit Trilogy”, and his team have painstakingly restored the 600 hours of footage by taking the original speed each roll of film was shot at, and using computers to standardise it at 24 frames per second. Jackson cleans up the grainy, poor quality, black and white pictures and video into sharp images, before finally colourising them.
Jackson has transformed the 100 year old brittle celluloid and provided a visual cinematic experience from the men who were there. Peter Jackson’s astonishing and revelatory documentary comes at the subject of World War 1 in a way no previous film, book or play has ever attempted before. Everything here is in the highest definition. Jackson matches his storytelling skill with his technical wizardry.
The beginning spends a chunk re-establishing the early 20th Century Britain, and presents the footage with hardly any visual touches and in its original format. It’s a clever way of framing the film and starting off the picture that settles the audience into the era. Once the soldiers enter the battlefield, Jackson opens up the vintage footage into a scope 2.40:1 aspect ratio and colorizes the footage. Once the film opens up its frame, “They Shall Not Grow Old” looks like a war film. I sat there astonished at how new the footage looked and If I was being fooled or not if it really was 100 year old footage or something Jackson shot months ago.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” is supported by the memories from WWI vets. The British men aren’t named, there not even interviewed on camera just their voice over is heard over the extraordinary footage. History isn’t explored in any substantial detail. The soldiers don’t always react as we would expect. Some of the surprising comments are: “I wouldn’t have missed it,” “I don’t regret having experienced it,” “It made me a man,” “If you survived there, you would survive everything”. The soldiers get in depth as they start talking about the smell of death, decaying corpses, or remember how they urinated in their handkerchiefs if they didn’t have time to put on their gas masks or describing colleagues drowning in the mud and having their brains blown out by snipers.
The men are left to charge across a nightmarish terrain of craters and barbed wire and as soon as they get anywhere near the enemy, they are mowed down by machine gun fire. Just in case we are not getting the point that the carnage was just “indescribable”, by both the video, photo stills and the description from the soldiers. Peter Jackson fills the speakers with ear splitting whistling bullets and bomb blasts. We hear anecdotes and see the unsanitary conditions these soldiers went through with plenty of evidence of the lice and the rats which made life on the front lines such a hazard to their hygiene and health. Jackson’s meticulous detail to the colorization and high resolution makes the images of soldiers with gangrene seem all the more grotesque.
The film is deeply unsettling, Peter Jackson puts you right in the middle of it all. He makes you feel as your right there. He tries to offer lightness as well, with Jackson trying to supply a balanced overview of the WWI experience, not just the gruesome details (there are many), soldiers discuss them making time for brothel visits and the acts of brotherhood, as the bonding between the men during the endless days that carried on for years. This is not a feature that examines why WWI happened, instead examines the feeling of war in motion.
Colorization has had a bad rep in film. But what Jackson does here, is give painstaking attention to detail, that brings the documentary footage alive. The soldiers aren’t just images on the screen, they are real people. The film is a triumph, both technically and emotionally. “They Shall Not Grow Old” gets us closer than we have ever before, and shows us just how much these men sacrificed.
GRADE: ★★★★★ OUT OF ★★★★★