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Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Into the trenches of WWI

Technology made Peter Jackson’s documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” possible. Its subjects make it unlike any film that has come before.

May 31, 2019

By Matt Watson

Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” is a product of technological advances a century apart: the spread of mass-market movie cameras in the early 1900s and modern advances in film restoration and computer-aided video editing.

As the lauded documentary hits digital streaming services in the U.S., it isn’t just connecting the cinematic century; it’s also bridging the chasm in the popular historical understanding of the First World War.

EDITOR'S NOTE: On Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2019, "They Shall Not Grow Old" will be screened at MSU Denver's King Center Concert Hall as part of The Denver Project for Humanistic Inquiry. Doors open at 5 p.m. and the film starts at 6 p.m.

Commissioned by the British Imperial War Museums and the BBC ahead of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, Jackson made the documentary with century-old film footage, 50-year-old audio recordings and a commitment to showcasing the human experience of war.

The director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy demonstrates the power of the technology that makes the documentary possible in the opening scene, which starts in grainy black-and-white, with the frame rate and aspect ratio of early motion pictures. Then the picture converts to full screen and full color, a shift that seems as transformative as when the first tanks plow past soldiers on horseback later in the film.

“It looks like a Charlie Chaplin film in the beginning, and then he changes that and colorizes it, and immediately we’re immersed in the reality of the situation,” said Vincent Piturro, chair of the film and media studies minor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “The film is a relentless, visceral experience for the viewer. It really places you in the shoes of the World War I soldiers. You’re in the trenches with them, feeling what they feel.”

Premiered last October in the United Kingdom, “They Shall Not Grow Old” features original film footage and stills of British art and propaganda from the era, narrated by veterans of the war themselves through audio recordings collected in the 1960s and 70s by the BBC and Imperial War Museums. The film had a limited release in U.S. theaters in February.

As there was no sound recording with video when the war took place, Jackson added sound effects and some dubbing of the conversations taking place between soldiers with the aid of forensic lip readers.

Most of the context from the war is also stripped from the film: There are no names of people or places, and no dates given in order to tell the stories of the soldiers, not of the war. Jackson told The Telegraph he wanted the 120 men he used as narrators to tell “a single story.”

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That story is of the trenches, since the physical limitations of those early cameras coupled with British army policies prevented the filming of actual fighting. The result is a juxtaposition of violence and camaraderie, teenagers and 20-somethings simultaneously dodging death and enamored with the camera.

“One of the most striking things to me is the jocular tone of some of the soldiers, where they’re smiling and laughing while they’re sitting in the trenches with dead bodies around them,” Piturro said. “Today, we all know how to act in front of a camera. We act differently than we do in real life. Those soldiers didn’t know how to act around the camera, so what we get is who they were.

“For me, that’s the fascinating part about the film and how it relates not just to film history, but to human history.”

The exchanges between British soldiers and their German captives is also fascinating, said Piturro, whose father served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. As those veterans recounted in their narration, the opposing sides were friendly and traded goods and mementos. The footage shows the humanity on both sides.

“It made me understand what my father felt as well, and I think that’s going to be true of a lot of people whose fathers, grandfathers or great-grandfathers fought in either World War I or World War II,” he said. “This really helps you understand what they went through.”

WWI for the 21st Century

"They Shall Not Grow Old" could be useful in closing a gap in the popular historical understanding of World War I in the U.S., said Andrea Maestrejuan, associate professor of history at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

“Jackson introduces a whole new layer of technology that I think resonates well with a younger audience who are mesmerized by state-of-the-art imagery,” she said. “The extent of the carnage and painting it in red certainly brings war to life more than just black and white footage and photographs that we have. It makes it more human and more real.”

Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson's World War I documentary "They Shall Not Grow Old" premiered in 2018, a century after the source footage was filmed. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Maestrejuan, who teaches a course on World War I, said young people don’t have a great understanding of the war for various reasons. In addition to the conflict taking place more than 100 years ago, the U.S. was a late entrant into the war and was engaged for less than two years. The number of American casualties in battle was about one-fifth of the total from World War II.

The war is much more personal for those in Great Britain, Australia or New Zealand, though.

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Jackson was born in New Zealand and his grandfather fought for the British in World War I. His grandfather died long before the film maker was born, and Jackson told USA Today that he knows where his grandfather fought and when he was wounded, but he missed out on hearing what it was like to be there.

“As an homage to his grandfather, to whom the movie is dedicated, he’s done a fantastic job of bringing to life these men who kind of get ignored with all the attention surrounding World War II,” Maestrejuan said.

Clips from the film could be used in her classes – if put in the proper context, she said. Because it focuses primarily on one country’s troops out of the many nations involved, and because the narrative is crafted by imposing oral histories onto selective film, Jackson’s movie still “leaves out a lot,” she said.

“Historians would use this kind of footage in the same critical way they would any other kind of source,” Maestrejuan said. “As long as you’re aware of the bias and perspective and you’re careful how you use it, there’s no difference between using that and a dusty old document written by an old dead white man.”

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