The Czar was able to take the boys to today’s showing of the new Peter Jackson movie They Shall Not Grow Old, which is a remarkable new documentary utterly devoid of giant gorillas, orcs, and aliens, and turn his superbly talented visual effects team on a real subject: World War I.
The movie apparently took something like four years to pull together, and there’s never been anything quite like it. The movie begins with blurry, sputtering, gray on white footage of England, 1914, cobbled together from hand-cranked archive footage depicting the world a day before Sarajevo. The war begins, and actual World War I veterans—recorded decades ago—recall how fun the idea of a war could be. Bored by the industrial age and its fixed, repetitive work, the idea of plinking a few Germans from the safety of France seemed like such a ripping, jolly adventure. The small images slowly swell to fill the theater screen, sharpening slightly in resolution, as we follow them through laughably inadequate infantry training and the growing sense of national pride the British were developing. A cryptic order to prepare for traveling across the channel is welcome news to the lads, some as young as 14 or 15, growing tired of the discipline and polish.
The first boot touches the ground in France, and suddenly the theater screen sharpens into high definition color. An incredible achievement, as Jackson’s team render original archive footage from the grainy, jostling, hand-cranked silence of the day into 4K sharpness and stereo. Although the original films were silent, his team meticulously and carefully add foley sounds to the scenes, going to the trouble—we learn after the credits in a must-watch 30 minute behind-the-scenes fully-engaging lecture—to have lip readers work out what the infantrymen were saying, and matching up their uniform insignia to ensure they capture the exact accent of the region of origin. No kidding.
Special effects and additions are kept to a surprising minimum, as Jackson lets the men tell their stories without any interruption. The viewer is escorted to the trenches, to a typical day in battle, through rotations from the front line and back, and culminating in Armistice, when the documentary fades to gray and white again, and the picture shrinks to original size.
The effect is impossible to describe without experiencing it, so the Czar suggests you catch a small taste of it, here:
Anyone with a passing knowledge of the history will learn nothing new in this documentary. There are no actors, no heart-pounding orchestrations, no sudden reveals. The star of the picture, unquestionably, is the use of computers to fully realize the original footage. Nearly all the footage is new, having been ignored for the last century: in some cases, the original film was practically ruined and impossible to fathom what was even captured upon it; however, Jackson’s team used the same tools that brought hobbits and space prawns to life, and in so doing rescued something like one hundred hours of footage, from murky-black splotches and over-exposed fuzziness to sharp, ultra-high definition. Colors were carefully matched to actual scenery, uniforms, and equipment; if you’re unimpressed by computer colorization of old movies, you will be swiftly rewarded by the efforts of people guiding each frame—some scenes are so realistic, it’s hard to believe that they weren’t filmed in a studio a year earlier.
The resulting documentary is stripped of propaganda; as a result, the British survivors are allowed to express their pride in their country, their own bravery, and how valiantly they fought under conditions impossible to imagine. The German soldiers are presented to us as loyal and brave, equally and completely confused by the politics surrounding their cause, and deserving of a warrior’s respect. No one’s actions are condemned, judged, or exaggerated: there is no revisionism here, and Jackson—himself an avid World War I buff—lets the men and the footage present themselves to you for your own verdict.
The movie was played in severely restricted release—only on two days in a handful of theaters. Our theater was packed, and unfortunately the actual screen chosen by management was inadequate for the movie: the seats were too close, and this led to some obvious software artifacts from the digital projector. If you missed it, and you probably did, let us soon hope that this soon comes to Netflix or Amazon Prime, where you can watch it in the highest possible resolution on your television.
You should also be very aware that this movie is uncensored: there is graphic violence, with real men and horses being torn to shreds before your eyes. Watching computer-generated men and horses slay each other in Return of the King is one thing; this is the real thing, and viewers should be prepared.
The movie is never dull. While most documentaries focus on the many angles, aspects, and interpretations, here you spend your time between the artillery and infantry. You will find no pop culture dissertations on minority contributions, the effect on the women, how the war changed naval culture, or any of the many extra chapters professors like to cram into their books and videos. This movie sticks to a small point of focus, and like a Gestalt, you appreciate the whole war through the examination of this one small part.
The Czar’s boys were more-than-familiar enough with the story of World War I; all the history you need to know is presented for you by the many narrators, given that most of them had no clue what the causes were or what the situation would involve. The Царевич brought along his best friend, however, who knew very little of the history of the War. The Czar asked him, upon exiting the theater, what he now understood, and the young man felt the movie was a powerful expression for how huge and important World War I was. As Jackson states in his post-script lecture, he wanted to make a non-historical film for non-historians, and let the audience experience it as the fighters did; based on this, he succeeded admirably.