Documentary brings WWI footage to startling new life


Peter Jackson's documentary about the thrills and horrors of World War I, "They Shall Not Grow Old," uses state-of-the-art technology to bring history to life so vividly that it feels almost supernatural. Using digital restoration techniques, Jackson turns black-and-white, century-old footage of long-dead soldiers into richly colored images that brim with expressive energy. The overall effect is both wonderful and spooky, like an unexpectedly successful seance.

Why is Jackson, best known for his fantastical "Lord of the Rings" films, making a historical documentary? The New Zealand-born director was commissioned by Britain's Imperial War Museum and the U.K. arts program 14-18 NOW (formed to celebrate the Great War's centenary) to create this film. His only brief was to use the museum's archives, a treasure trove of 23,000 hours of moving images and 33,000 sound recordings.

Jackson took an unorthodox approach when putting his material together: no reenactments, no talking-head interviews, no historians or experts — just real war-time footage accompanied by first-person audio accounts. The narrators are never seen or even identified. As a result, the movie has a kind of storybook feel, as though the voices we're hearing are producing the images in our heads.

And what images they are. We see throngs of young men, some barely into their teens, so giddy to enlist that they lie about their age to recruiters. Boot camp turns out to be a rude awakening: ill-fitting uniforms, poor food, endless marching and bayoneting. These black-and-white sequences give way to startling color (and, in some theaters, a deep 3-D) once the boys arrive at the front. Young faces blink in amazement at the chaos and death. Evil yellow gas hovers in the air. Soldiers scramble over trench walls and then simply vanish in an explosion. Land mines heave giant bubbles of earth into the sky. 

In all of this, Jackson's master stroke is something quite simple: He slows down the old footage to a smoother, more natural-looking speed. This took much guesswork and frame-rate math, but it means everything, more than the color or the added depth. For the first time, those jittery, frenetic figures in ancient newsreels look and move like people you know.

"They Shall Not Grow Old" borrows its title from a line in Laurence Binyon's poem "For the Fallen," published in 1914, the first year of the war. It's a seven-stanza handkerchief, waved to an entire generation marching off to die. Yet here they are, right in front of us, alive once more.