As director Peter Jackson explains in the opening of They Shall Not Grow Old, he was approached by the BBC and Imperial War Museums in 2014 to create a documentary about World War I to commemorate the (then) upcoming centenary. The only stipulation? That he use their original footage from the war. Jackson figured he had to do something groundbreaking—he’s good at that kind of thing—so he and his crew pored over 100 hours of archival film along with more than 600 hours of soldier interviews to immerse the audience in the life of a British infantry soldier on the Western Front. Using a combination of advanced software, exhaustive research and, at times, guesswork, the production crew repaired scratches and breaks, corrected frame rates and colorized the prints frame-by-frame. The result is astonishing.
In a documentary about the documentary—a 25-minute piece that follows the 99-minute feature (and is essential viewing)—Jackson answers many of the questions audience members were wondering during the film. Why focus on just the infantry at the Front, when there are plenty of stories about the Air Service, Navy, life at home and so on? Besides the soldiers’ narration, where did all the audio come from? How does one arrive at the decision to colorize, when that process has been demonized so often?
While inventive screenplays and professional actors have brought war to life in new ways in films such as Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), They Shall Not Grow Old is just as interesting in its subjects’ ordinariness; very young, mostly working-class men who would never really have considered not enlisting. This humanity is exaggerated, if anything, by the reaction of so many of the soldiers to the camera. Some mug and make faces; others go completely still as they’re used to doing for still photographs. This is such a stark contrast to modern footage of people used to the ubiquitous camera; most of these soldiers had never seen motion picture equipment before. And occasionally, that journalist or filmmaker of 100 years ago happens upon a soldier whose face so eloquently conveys his terror, bewilderment or shell shock. It says everything that can be said about the horrors of war, whether or not they’re in full color.