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Peter Jackson documentary 'They Shall Not Grow Old' an epic World War I tale

  • Video: They ShallNot Grow Old trailer

updated: 1/31/2019 10:10 PM

Peter Jackson's revolutionary documentary "They Shall Not Grow Old" makes just as much history as it tells us about British soldiers who fought in World War I.

Similar to how Adam McKay's "Vice" uses drama to create a compelling subset of historic journalism, Jackson's documentary uses historic journalism to craft a riveting form of immersive drama.

Imagine Chicago's late master historic interviewer Studs Terkel being turned loose with permission to make any movie he wanted.

This would be that movie.

Jackson, known mainly for his Oscar-winning "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and other fantasy tales, would hardly be an obvious choice to create a nonfiction feature from old black-and-white silent newsreels shot during the Great War.

But when the British Imperial War Museum asked Jackson to do that in 2014, he said yes, kick-starting four months of testing to see how computers could restore deteriorated, century-old film capturing the experiences of foot soldiers on the front lines.

Next, computers "colorized" the footage, giving a washed-out, grainy Super-8 look to the images, often splattered with bright red blood that doesn't appear to be 100 percent natural, but effective enough.

More computer magic transferred the 2-D footage into eye-popping 3-D imagery that provides a captivating sense of depth, especially to scenes of death and devastation on the vast, scarred landscape of the theater of war.

Jackson and the filmmakers pored through 600 hours of interviews with approximately 250 British WWI veterans to piece together a narrative chorus of first-person accounts, voiced by actors sounding appropriately authentic.

So, what we get in "They Shall Not Grow Old" is exactly what Jackson wanted: a film made by a non-historian for non-historian audiences.

No dates. No names. No places. No exposition.

Just the voices of the soldiers taking us from the exciting call-to-arms ("It was just like a job," one man says of his experience) to the carefully observed brutality of fighting. (A soldier matter-of-factly shares how he saw a German soldier on the ground, one of his lungs outside his chest, still expanding and contracting.)

Granted, "They Shall Not Grow Old" may not be conventional first-date movie material at the local mall.

But it represents a milestone in nonfiction storytelling, a work so carefully detailed and cinematic, when you hear a soldier's voice mention how he accepted a cup of tea, you see on the screen a British fighter sitting down with his pals, accepting a cup of tea.

It's almost as if Jackson had directed the "actors" to help him put the finishing "You are there" touches on this movie.

The journalistic and cinematic integrity of the Imperial War Museum's archival footage is further ensured by the use of the original "Academy ratio" frame proportions of 1:1.33, the square-like shape of movies before the advent of widescreen.

With this documentary, Jackson has pulled off a feat that H.G. Wells would admire.

It's like sending a 21st century filmmaking crew back to the turn of the last century to create an epic tale of intimately personal scope.

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