Documentaries are a funny thing: it’s often hard to predict which ones will receive critical praise and attention, and which ones will do well at the box office.
Such is the case of the World War I documentary, “They Shall Not Grow Old.”
Prior to its special 2-day Fathom Events release in December, I’d heard very little about the film, but found myself interested when I found out it was being directed by “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson. That interest piqued further when I heard it would be available in 3D.
A before and after image showing the original film on the right and the restored and colorized image on the left in a moment from Peter Jackson’s acclaimed WWI documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures © 2018 Imperial War Museum.)
Assuming the film would be off most other people’s radars, too, I was surprised to roll into a mid-day screening to find a full house. I later searched a theater ticketing app to find the second screening that night was also a sellout. Ten days later it would sell out again, as it would again when a January date was added.
After racking up an impressive $8+ million during that limited run, the film gets its proper release in theaters across the country this weekend.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” is exactly what it promises to be – an intimate look at the men serving on the front lines of WWI, in a way they’ve never been seen before.
To create “They Shall Not Grow Old,” Jackson was enlisted by 14-18 NOW (the “UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary”), Britain’s Imperial War Museum, and the BBC, and given access to 100 hours of footage and more than 600 hours of audio recordings.
A restored and colorized image showing a moment from Peter Jackson’s acclaimed WWI documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures © 2018 Imperial War Museum.)
While the content of those archives is incredible on its own (especially if you think of them as the world’s time capsule), what Jackson and his team did with it is even more impressive.
Rather than trot out footage that would look familiar (black and white, grainy, varying speeds, etc.), the team set out to fully clean, restore, and stabilize the footage so it would serve its purpose now and be intact for future generations as well. They were also able to use technological tricks far beyond my grasp to give a consistent speed to all of the footage – something that was virtually impossible given the hand-crank-operated cameras of the era. For good measure, they added color and 3D technology to depth and realism. For me, seeing someone’s face in color is much more impactful than in black and white – it makes them feel more like someone I could bump into in the street.
For the audio, more than 120 subject interviews were used, none (or at least very little) of which actually match what is happening on screen. Further, when subjects in the footage are seen speaking, forensic lip-readers were brought in to decipher what was being said, and those words were brought to life by actors.
The progression from the original to the final colorized image in a moment from Peter Jackson’s acclaimed WWI documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures © 2018 Imperial War Museum.)
Some of the footage is hard to watch because we are talking about war and unsanitary conditions of the time, and the stories at times are equally brutal to hear.
Combined, all of those elements team up to tell a story more important than one they could tell on their own: they give voices and faces to men that haven’t had them in decades (a century for some) and they tell the shared experience of what life was like for young Brits in the trenches.
Despite all of that, I still feel “They Shall Not Grow Old” is primarily going to appeal to certain niche audiences – WWI historians, documentary enthusiasts, etc. But it should also be on the radar of filmmakers, particularly young ones, because it’s a wonderful example of what technology and imagination can create.
★★★★ of ★★★★★