Peter Jackson, the Oscar winning director behind some of the most technically ground breaking films of the last twenty years, would not have been the first person I would expect to churn out a rousing documentary on the lives of soldiers serving in the trenches during the first world war. In fact, I would never considered Jackson having a potential as a documentary filmmaker at all being that the previous entries on his resume gave no indication for a predilection toward that sort of thing. The closest he’s come in the past to a documentary film were behind the scenes pieces chronicling the making of his previous films and usually included as bonus extras on the home video incarnations of his works. While they were well made they didn’t quite prepare me for his latest film—and probably the best thing he’s done in at least a dozen years—They Shall Not Grow Old.
Interestingly enough this is a project that Jackson has readily admitted in interviews in which he initially had little to no interest. The genesis of the project began with the Imperial War Museum and the BBC’s decision to commission a one hundredth anniversary of the armistice. Jackson was given surviving film footage of soldiers taken during that time and asked if he could possibly restore it. Once the filmmaker became immersed in the project he saw the potential and opted to make this tribute film in his own inimitable fashion. He has done the world a great service with the finished product.
The end result is both a harrowing and, at times, humorous account of the day to day lives of these men who gave so much, up to and including, the sacrifice of themselves. Offscreen, various narrators read the real life testimonies of these men. This technique works splendidly in giving the viewer an intimate sense of what the experience of living and fighting at the time must have been like on a daily basis. As a result the film is at times a bit uncomfortable and bit tough to digest—no pun intended—for the squeamish. The footage in the film has been colorized and cleaned up to give the viewer a ‘you are there’ sense of things. What Jackson has accomplished from a technical standpoint is an achievement to behold. What it may lack in inspiration it certainly makes up for in other departments and it’s hard to quibble with the finished product. It’s unlike any war documentary you’re likely to have seen or will see anytime soon.
Scene from They Shall Not Grow Old
This movie is playing in Charlotte.
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