They Shall Not Grow Old

In 2014, Peter Jackson was recruited by the UK's Imperial War Museums and the BBC to make a documentary commemorating the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, the end of World War I. Apparently, all he was given was hundreds of hours of vintage footage shot between 1914 and 1918, and no particular agenda beyond that.

Finally using his craze for film technology for the common good, Jackson and his team took four years to digitally clean up the old films, adjust their frame rate to meet contemporary standards, colorize the footage, and blow it up so he could apply modern pans and tilts as needed. The result, rather than looking garish, in fact brings these long-dead soldiers – those who met their makers on the battlefield as well as those who lived to tell the tale – back to life.

Gone are the anonymous, herky-jerky figures trotting across wide shots, their faces barely visible on the scratched celluloid. In spite of the occasionally squishy by-products of the digital cleanup, these men's faces now appear very real and very human. It really connects you to their era, taking you into the trenches to feel the horrors of the Great War while acknowledging the complicated reality of a soldier's life.

The film more or less follows the war chronologically. There is no narration; the only voices we hear, aside from some on-screen dubbing to further enhance the verisimilitude of the footage, are the reminiscences of dozens of veterans, recorded by the BBC in the 1960s and 1970s. Those interviews were of a time before our current predilection for neurotic, egocentric self-reflection: these aged Brits retain their stiff upper lips and recount their experiences in casual, "that's just how it was" tones.

They Shall Not Grow Old may not appeal to those who don't already have an interest in World War I. Still, it does a valuable service to the memories of those who fought, regardless of the whys and wherefores of the war itself.