They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A vivid, evocative WWI documentary

Peter Jackson’s documentary film “They Shall Not Grow Old” is an extraordinary work you should not miss. Via its astounding technical enhancement of archival footage clips shot during World War I, it vividly and compellingly shows us what it was like for those many young British soldiers struggling and fighting in the trenches of the western front during that wartime, and there are a number of striking moments which will surely linger on your mind for a long time even though you are well aware of their artificial aspects.

For this documentary, which was co-commissioned by the Imperial War Museums (IWM) and NOW 14-18, a major cultural program in UK to commemorate the centenary of World War I, Jackson and his crew reviewed not only around 100 hours of archival footage clips but also around 600 hours of audio interviews from more than 200 British World War I veterans, and it is hard not to be impressed by how seamlessly those archival footage clips and audio interviews are juxtaposed together in the superlative visual/aural collage of the documentary. Although it does not provide much background knowledge (it does not even have a narrator, for example), the documentary generates an engaging narrative flow instead as letting us watch and listen to its assembled archival materials, and then it grips us further as immersing us more into its narrative through its state-of-the-art technical approach.

In the beginning, the documentary looks like your average World War I documentary film as presenting a series of old, scratchy black and white archival footage clips, and we listen to British World War I veterans reminiscing about how things got changed a lot for them when the war was suddenly started shortly after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in July 1914. As British people were quite confident about another glorious victory for their British Empire, thousands of young men in Britain were eager to join the army by any means necessary, and these young men soon went through a short but rigorous military training once they got enlisted in the army. After the training was over, they were all promptly sent to the western front in the Europe continent, and then they came to have their first taste of the war, which turned out to be quite different from many other wars in the past as new modern weapons such as tanks and gas were used for the first time.

Around that narrative point, the documentary switches from black and white film in 1:33 ratio to color film in widescreen, and what Jackson and his crew achieve here in this documentary is nothing short of stunning. In addition to colorizing archival footage clips, they carefully cleaned and restored them via digital processes, and they also put painstaking efforts on adjusting the frame rate of original black and white archival footage clips, which were shot at 10-18 frames per second (fps), to our modern standard at present (24 fps). As a result, their enhanced version of archival footage clips looks not only clear and crisp with its impressive color hues but also quite smooth and natural frame by frame.

Furthermore, Jackson and his crew added sound effects and extra voice acting to the soundtrack of their documentary. This initially feels like another artificial touch, but they created their artificial aural details with considerable care and attention (they even hired lip-leading experts for finding what exactly figures shown in archival footage clips said, for instance), and it is undeniable that it contributes more realism and verisimilitude to the final result. Those anonymous figures in archival footage clips feel more real as we occasionally hear them talk, and so do several frontline battles reminisced in the documentary, which are dynamically and strikingly presented along with shattering sound effects and surely remind us that war is indeed hell.

And we hear and see more of how it was often miserable and dangerous to be stuck in those muddy trenches for days and weeks. As they did not get much chance to clean themselves, soldiers frequently suffered trench foot, rats, and many other unpleasant things, and there is a pretty amusing part involved with their latrines. Soldiers usually had to take care of their excretion business while precariously sitting on a pole right above a big hole full of excrement, and, not so surprisingly, the documentary gives us a literally sh*tty episode which will indubitably make you cringe a lot if you are as fastidious about bathroom as I am.

Nevertheless, the war was not always bad for soldiers. One veteran says that being in a trench was “a sort of outdoor camping holiday with the boys, with a slight spice of danger to make it interesting”, and other veterans gladly talk about how much fun and excitement they had along with others when they survived and then were allowed to have some rest away from the front line. As being outside their country, they often experienced new interesting things they had never imagined before, and they surely felt like having the best time of their lives.

Of course, the situation became less exciting for soldiers when the war was eventually over in 1918, and the documentary switches back to black and white film for reflecting their disappointment and melancholy. When soldiers returned to Britain, they felt like being left behind as their country and its people moved back to normal time without looking back, and, as we all know, their war, which was once regarded as “the war to end all wars”, was subsequently surpassed by World War II around 20 years later.

Overall, “They Shall Now Grow Old”, whose title was inspired by the 1914 poem “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon, is a superb war documentary which gives us a fresh look into World War I, and Jackson, who dedicated his documentary to his grandfather who was a World War I veteran, did a respectful and commendable job on the whole. This is inarguably his best work since “King Kong” (2005), and I am glad to see him being back in element after that unnecessary Hobbit trilogy.

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