They Shall Not Grow Old, through sheer technical wizardry, makes history as vivid and real as the present in a remarkable artistic achievement.
Peter Jackson is no stranger to towering, swaggering digital achievements, but his latest effort, They Shall Not Grow Old, might be his finest yet. A painstaking recreation of the Imperial War Museum’s archive of First World War footage, it tasks cold, dispassionate computers with breathing life and colour and emotion into the past.
It’s difficult to talk about it. Whatever technical wizardry is occurring under the hood of the 90-minute film is a lot less fascinating written down. I could talk about the miraculous restoration of silent, black-and-white footage, the dorky digital smoothing of the framerate, or the authentic dialogue supplied by actors after forensic lip-reading, but while all that sounds cool if you’re into such things, very few people are into such things. At least, very few people know they’re into such things. They realise all of a sudden, as muddied young men trudge to the front and the footage inexplicably segues from silent black-and-white to full-colour HD, like you took a step through the television and emerged in the trenches.
The effect is staggering, especially for a documentary. They Shall Not Grow Old deploys none of the usual tricks. There aren’t any expert talking heads or distant relatives tearfully remembering their great-grandfather. In just a few seconds Jackson turns grainy archival footage into painstakingly-rendered reality; the past becomes present. The young men (many of whom lied about their age to enlist) seem alive, not just on-screen but in a more truthful way, their real-life testimonies weaving among the cracks of rifles, the squelches of boots in mud, and the thundering of artillery fire. Their jokes and laughter and camaraderie ring out as poignantly as their tales of putting maimed friends out of their misery.
In showing all this and explaining it in quite this way, They Shall Not Grow Old is haunted by war’s horrors in a way that few films – fiction or otherwise – could ever claim. In their matter-of-fact accounting of enlistment, to their generous evaluation of their German counterparts, to the detailing of how upon returning home they were met with general disgust and hatred, these veterans unintentionally highlight the hypocrisy and futility of war in their own, regionally-accented words. Jackson’s film is a momentous, powerful achievement in filmmaking, made more so by the fact he’s communicating in voices a hundred years old that ring louder now than they perhaps ever have.