When the heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated on June 28, 1914, the movies had just learned to walk. D.W. Griffith’s masterpieces — racists and otherwise — were still a year or two off, a mere four months had passed since Cecil B. DeMille directed the first feature in the sleepy orange grove of Hollywood, California, and the world had only met Charlie Chaplin a few months prior. It would be another 13 years before synchronized sound became standard, another 22 until three-strip color film was available, and a full four decades before movie audiences began experiencing the glorious gimmick of 3D technology.
One hundred years later, the movies don’t just walk; they soar. Synch sound, color of any kind, and 3D are readily available to just about anyone with a camera and computer. And for those with access to those computers with the biggest computing power, the present isn’t the only thing up for grabs; the past is as well.
No film presents this collision of technology and history quite like They Shall Not Grow Old, the new documentary from Peter Jackson composed of footage from World War I, colorized and converted into 3D with lip-readers occasionally sliding dialogue into those faces, long since dead.
There is little doubt that the story behind They Shall Not Grow Old is as fascinating as the final result, but to the broad strokes: In 2014, the Imperial War Museum and 14–18 NOW contacted Jackson to create a film that would celebrate the centenary of the Armistice. Based on this skeleton of a request, Jackson’s team took some of the archival footage and did a 2K restoration to see what they had. The digitized result invigorated Jackson, and he ended up requesting 100 hours of film along with hundreds of hours of audio recordings with the soldiers, conducted by the BBC in the 1960s and ‘70s.
The results are stunning. Rather than give a historical picture of the events, Jackson eschews dates and locations in favor of atmosphere and immersion. No names are assigned to the faces seen, nor the voices heard. Jackson also narrows his focus to the infantry soldiers — no air or sea battles, no struggles on the home front. Instead, down in the trenches with the men trying to pass the time, over the top with bayonets fixed hoping not to die, and in the mess hall eating an endless supply of “stew” alongside a sea of smiling, toothless faces.
Jackson bolsters these newly discovered images with the aforementioned tools of the trade: sound, color, and 3D. Grainy black and white images bookend the movie — complete with the whir of a reel-to-reel projector. Like most silent footage, these images are jumpy and sped up (film rates would not be standardized to 24 frames per second until the advent of sound) which might explain why Jackson pushed to footage beyond restoration to manipulation. To restore these images — remove scratches, lines, dirt, and grime — would have made them appear unnatural. To slow them down or speed them up to the same projection rate would have turned them ghostly. Maybe a full black and white, silent version of the events would have created a “purer” experience, but it still would have been off-putting. Jackson was right to double down on his stereoscopic colorization. The sheer audacity alone is worthy of praise.
They Shall Not Grow Old — taken from the 1914 poem “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon — is as unsettling as it is immersive. You never quite settle into the movie’s rhythm or fall into its story. The eyes of the soldiers are haunting, the sync sound is occasionally jarring, the movements are jerky, and their hands and feet move with a ghostly wisp as if all of this might vanish before your very eyes. It’s a movie that feels like it was conjured from a dream rather than snatched from a history. They may not grow old, but they — and the film that captured them — could disappear like a puff of smoke. It’s up to us to remember them, lest we forget.