Peter Jackson’s stunning World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old made me understand what it must have been like to see The Wizard of Oz in 1939. The director, most famous for special effects wizardry in films like The Lord of the Rings trilogy and his King Kong remake, has employed jaw-dropping digital restoration work to century-old footage to bring the Great War to life. His film is a chill inducing experience.
The Wizard of Oz comparison is apt in more than one way. The most basic is They Shall Not Grow Old’s “wow factor” upon seeing something we’re all familiar with in a completely new way. His digital effects team has transformed footage degraded by time back into pristine condition. But it goes much deeper than that. It seems that Jackson drew inspiration from Oz for his documentary’s structure.
There are no talking-head style interviews from contemporary sources here. Every bit of narration comes from actual WWI veterans in audio interviews conducted by the BBC and the Imperial War Museum in the 1950s and 1960s. In the early part of the film, we get a sense for what it was like in the days leading up to the war, and the excitement nearly every young man felt when enlisting.
Jackson accompanies this phase of the story with footage that looks like what you might expect. The restoration work is there – and it’s amazing in its own right – but the film is silent, in black-and-white, and Jackson overemphasizes the 1.33:1 aspect ratio by matting the images with black on all sides, making the footage seem smaller. Then, just like in Oz, the movie is transformed. As we hear the first descriptions of the battle front, the film transitions from black-and-white to color as it escapes the square mattes to become a larger, widescreen presentation.
In addition to the extraordinary visuals, we also “hear” this silent footage for the first time. Jackson’s sound team performed painstaking work to add sound effects as well as actual dialog where appropriate. He hired a team of lip readers to decipher what the soldiers in the footage were saying any time their mouths moved. Jackson then did research on where each regiment was from in Britain, so he could hire voice actors from the same region, in order to approximate the accents of the men on screen.
The most astounding example of this is detailed in the nearly 30-minute making of documentary that follows the presentation of the actual film. Jackson describes one scene in which an officer is shown reading a letter to his troops. He was able to track down the letter he thought the soldier might be reading. When Jackson recorded himself reading the letter, as a test, his audio team was able to match the words he read with the lip movements from the soldier’s mouth.
The astonishing technical feats of They Shall Not Grow Old would be enough, but it also complements the human drama and tragedy of war that Jackson brings to life in the film. He chronicles the horrors of trench warfare and the unbelievable carnage of the world’s first industrial-age conflict using emotionally devastating first-person accounts. It is a harrowing thing to sit through.
Some in the film community – most vociferous are those in the film preservation field – consider what Jackson has done as heresy. Many people also (rightly) lambasted Ted Turner’s effort to “colorize” classic black-and-white films for television broadcast in the 1980s. They see Jackson (and saw Turner) changing this footage as an insult to the people who created it. Their arguments are not without merit. We should strive to preserve these artifacts just as they were created. However, what Jackson has done is truly remarkable. He has brought an immediacy and vibrancy to a brutal conflict that has passed from lived human experience.