Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

They Shall Not Grow Old

(New Zealand, UK, 2018)

Peter Jackson’s grandfather served in the Great War, the one we now call World War I. This led to a fascination with the war. He became a collector, with a huge wardrobe of uniforms, an arsenal of rifles, and heaps of other paraphernalia. And, being Peter Jackson, a very rich man from having directed six Tolkien movies, he has actual military vehicles and artillery pieces. If anyone wanted to invade New Zealand, they would have to go through Peter Jackson first.

But seriously, this fascination led him to make what I think is one of the most astonishing documentaries I’ve ever seen.

In 1914 through 1918, movie cameras were as big as suitcases, and they shot film at 16 frames per second. Or that’s what they thought, until they tried use computers to work on making it look as if they were shot at what later became the worldwide standard: 24 fps. It turns out that those hand-cranked machines were far from standardized, and were shooting at 14, or 17, or 15, or even 12 fps.

This was only the first of the challenges his team faced in trying to make all that old footage look as if it were shot yesterday. One hundred years has not been kind to this historic material. The films were faded almost to white, or darkened to such murkiness that little could be seen. They were scratched, patched, blotched … you name it. And, of course, they were in black and white. All that has been cleaned up incredibly well.

I have always been a fierce opponent of colorization. But I only mean it for fiction movies, for Casablanca and Citizen Kane and Flying Down to Rio and Laurel and Hardy. Colorizing stuff like that is desecration of works of art. I have no problem with what Jackson has done here. In fact, I applaud it, and I’d like to see more of it. Because this process brings this old stuff to life. Where before the soldiers in the trenches moved like jerky puppets, now they move at normal speed. Their uniforms are the right color. The mud is brown, the grass is green. And yes, the blood is red. They are alive, in a way they have never been before, even in 1918.

The filmmakers were fanatical about the recreation. There is an excellent “making of” feature on the DVD, and I urge you to watch it. The sound track, for instance. They used some of Jackson’s battery for the cannon’s roar. In many scenes people are talking, of course. So they employed lip readers so voice actors could recreate what these men were actually saying!

A key decision they made early on is that this would not be an “educational” film. You will see no maps of trenches. No announcer will intone “And then came the First Battle of the Somme.” In the scenes of battle, you don’t know if you are at Verdun, the Marne, Ypres, or Passchendaele. And it doesn’t matter! It’s all the same hell on earth, charging into machine gun fire, living in a knee-deep rat-infested open sewer, or crouching in a shell hole with bits of torn, rotting, stinking meat that used to be a human.

(I have previously said that at the end of this war, if I were Emperor of the World, I would line up every general from all sides, shoot them in the gut, and watch them die in great pain over a long time. Now I think I’d make them all live in a trench for a year, and then force any survivors to go “over the top!” into machine gun fire. Any brass hat that refused to go would be shot by their own officers, as was the case in 1914-18.)

Another wonderful choice they made … the narration is provided solely by veterans. There are over a hundred voices we hear, all of them recorded between the ‘50s and ‘70s. They provide a window into hell more vivid than anything I’ve ever heard. They are all dead now, but their voices still speak.

You owe it to yourself to see this movie. In 2018 eight movies were nominated for Best Picture. I’ve seen six, and this movie is miles better, and incredibly more important, than any of them. But, being a documentary, it was not eligible. That’s just the way it is, I guess.