They Shall Not Grow Old

by Sam Cohen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday February 1, 2019

'They Shall Not Grow Old'
'They Shall Not Grow Old'  

Director Peter Jackson has long been a champion of inventing and refining technology to improve the cinematic experience. While most movies you see today are shown in 24 frames per second, he doubled the frame rate for his "Hobbit" trilogy, to middling result. The smooth motion effect that plagues televisions everywhere was up on the big screen, and was mostly derided by audiences. That didn't stop him from using all the tools at his disposal to restore and colorize World War I footage with "They Shall Not Grow Old." Working from a gold mine of never-before-seen footage he was given access to by the Imperial War Museum in England because of the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, Jackson has successfully transported viewers to the Great War with stunning clarity. The result is incredibly gripping, and the best thing Jackson has done since "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

Drawing from visual and audio assets that total over 600 hours, the 99-minute "They Shall Not Grow Old" presides over the fog of WWI with a keen eye for details. While it doesn't skimp on the more violent aspects of such a terrible time in history, the film showcases the hardships that soldiers went through with kindness and empathy. That same kindness even extends to German soldiers that the British soldiers were losing their lives to.

Back during WWI, film cameras used on the battlefield were still rudimentary. They were operated by a crank on the side of the camera, the frame rate reached a maximum of 18 frames per second, and you couldn't move the camera while it was rolling. Jackson got around the frame rate obstacle by using a conversion process so that the modern standard of 24 frames per second would be upheld. In addition, he was able to move the still images around using zooms and pans to create a more dynamic view. The 3D technology he used in liberal amounts with the "Hobbit" trilogy returns here, and provides unparalleled depth of field that only increases the audience's connection to what's on screen. While the still images show just about everything we need to know about British soldiers during WWI, Jackson's 3D tricks haven't been used in documentaries before, and "They Shall Not Grow Old" is proof that these technologies provide much more than just entertainment value.

Aesthetic and technical feats aside, "They Shall Not Grow Old" will leave you feeling short of breath. Not because it's intentionally trying to mimic how a soldier would feel on the battlefield, but because it creates an immediacy to a time most of us did not live through with remarkable detail. A conventional narrative is jettisoned in favor of showing the minutiae of WWI without having to expound upon it endlessly by showing the same thing repeating. In one sequence, a soldier strums on a glass bottle like a guitar to entertain his fellow soldiers. What was once an image without sound is now something full of life because of the addition of audio and vibrant colors.

The film even gets around there not being footage shot right in the heart of battle by juxtaposing still frames of pulp art with first-hand accounts by veterans providing voiceover. That kind of convention wouldn't work well in a lesser film, but "They Shall Not Grow Old" employs new ways of recounting information similar to we've heard before. Plus, in sequences in which we can see a soldier's lips moving, Jackson hired professional lip readers, then dubbed over the scenes using professional voice actors. The effect doesn't feel unnerving or manipulative, it feels like a perfect storm of so many factors working in tandem to achieve the best outcome possible.

"They Shall Not Grow Old" has only been playing during one-night exclusive Fathom Events, but will release wide on February 1, 2019. If the wide release uses the same screening structure, I recommend staying for the behind-the-scenes featurette that runs after the film has ended. Peter Jackson takes you through the restoration process and shows just how much work was put into this tireless recounting.

Not only do I urge you to see this film because it pioneers technologies in productive ways, it's essential to view the horrors of the past under an atypical lens. A lens that breeds well-rounded views instead of assigning fault to one specific party. Above everything, Jackson has showed us through "They Shall Not Grow Old" that, in times like this, a well-defined community of individuals that care about one another will help everyone persevere through darkness.