Peter Jackson's World War I doc 'They Shall Not Grow Old' Breaks \Powerful New Ground, Barry Paris, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 1, 2019
All was never quiet on the Western Front for long. The title of Erich
Maria Remarque’s great novel about the Great War is bitterly ironic:
Silence lulls its exhausted soldier hero into fatally reaching out from
his trench for a butterfly.
The silence of film footage from that war (1914-1918) has lulled us
into thinking of it — if we bother to think of it at all — as something
soundless and monochromatic as the Civil War of the 1860s.
That should change with “They Shall Not Grow Old,” Peter Jackson’s
extraordinary World War I documentary, commemorating the conflict’s
centennial with a brilliant enhancement of hitherto unseen film material
from Britain’s Imperial War Museum.
A joyful noise opens this far-from-silent movie, just as it opened
the conflict itself: Patriotic crowds and parades throughout England
cheer their support for thousands of young recruits hungry for heroic
adventure. Many are 16 or 17 — more than a few just 15 — all claiming to
be 18 or 19, so as not to miss out on the action.
The noise increases with marching, singing and drilling — shades of
Richard Attenborough’s “Oh! What a Lovely War!” (1969) — until
superseded by the more deafening sound and fury of battle, as the eager
new soldiers on their way to the front pass the shell-shocked ones
staggering away from it.
Only then do the images come to astonishing life in color. We begin
to see grim details of the complex trench systems — dead bodies hanging
on barbed wire, live bodies, lousy with lice, fat rats and frozen feet
and blinded mustard gas victims holding onto one another’s shoulders in a
And for the first time, we see the real faces of real men — including
German POWs, as young and frightened as their captors — in stunning
close-ups as sharp and fresh as those on your new iPhone.
It’s not all horror.
More fascinating, perhaps, is the footage of
daily life (if you escaped death): However traumatized or wounded from
the night before, soldiers had to be freshly washed and shaved the next
day — a routine they came to rely upon. They also discovered that the
near-boiling water that cooled down the machine guns could be used to
produce a half-decent cup of tea.
There’s even a welcome laugh or two: A banner on the enemy side of no
man’s land proclaimed the Prussian military slogan “Gott mit uns!” (God
is with us). The Brits’ response on the other side: “We got mittens,
New Zealand director Jackson — much acclaimed for the dazzling
special effects of his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (2001-2003) and “King
Kong” (2005) — makes excellent use of that expertise for a higher cause
here. His fine documentary contains an “optional epilogue” on the
making of it, in which he explains the restoration, colorization and
Most crucial was the problem of shooting vs. projecting speed. In the
World War I era, 16 frames per second was the norm, but since cameras
were hand-cranked, there was really no reliable “standard.” Cranking was
anywhere from 14 to 18 fps. Mr. Jackson shows us how a single frame
more or less (per second) makes a huge difference in verisimilitude to
life when projected. Synchronizing variably-cranked footage to real-life
projection — frame-rate adjustment — required sophisticated computer
algorithms to generate “missing” frames and thus smooth out the
The director’s painstaking demand for authentic detail is legendary.
My colleague Charles Constantino reminded me that, for his “Lord of the
Rings” films, Mr. Jackson insisted the Hobbits wear underwear precisely
fashioned according to Tolkien’s description — despite the fact those
undies never appeared on screen.
Here, he makes similarly meticulous audio and visual demands, from
the exact color of the grass in Flanders to the correct sound of boots
sinking into and sucking out of deep mud. With a lifelong
obsessive-compulsive interest in WWI, his vast personal collection of
uniforms and weapons came in handy — as did his hiring of forensic
lip-readers to glean what precious dialogue they could from the footage.
There’s no narration — only the voices of real soldiers who experienced
The only big disappointment is the film’s dubious 3D — a technical
bridge too far.
Otherwise, it’s a haunting historical achievement and
work of love, unapologetically Anglocentric in its exclusive focus on
the Western Front, where no fewer than a million citizens of the British
Empire were killed.
The failure to include even rudimentary information of the war’s
causes and larger scope bothered me. Not even one contextual reference
to the equally bloody Eastern Front? Not a map or two of the
geographically confusing campaigns to help us make sense of the action?
But I think I understand why. With 10 more minutes or 10 more hours,
you can’t make sense of the senselessness of such staggering magnitude.
You can only see and mourn these particular young men, meeting our gaze
after a century, dying nobly in service and sacrifice to old men’s
Full Text Link: Pittsburgh Post Gazette, February 1, 2019