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'They Shall Not Grow Old' review: Doc brings WWI footage to startling new life

A restored and colorized image showing a moment

A restored and colorized image showing a moment from Peter Jackson's World War I documentary, "They Shall Not Grow Old." Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

PLOT Life on the front lines of World War I, as captured in restored footage and archival audio.

RATED R (images of real violence and bloodshed)

LENGTH 1:39

BOTTOM LINE Peter Jackson’s documentary brings an old war 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.

As the movie industry came of age during the first half of the 20th century, filmmakers turned to the Great War as a source of drama, action and spectacle. Here are four classic examples:

Wings (1927) This historic silent — the first film to win the Oscar for best picture — is renowned for its realistic scenes of aerial combat. Director William Wellman was hired partly for his own World War I piloting experience.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) Well before 1981’s “Das Boot” startled audiences by taking the German point of view during World War II, Lewis Milestone’s drama focused on the experiences of young German soldiers during the Great War.

The Grand Illusion (1937) One of the finest war films ever made features Erich von Stroheim and Pierre Fresnay as aristocratic military men facing the end of their era. Directed and co-written by Jean Renoir.

Sergeant York (1941) Gary Cooper plays the real-life Alvin York, a humble Tennessee sharpshooter torn between his nonviolent beliefs and his patriotic duty. Cooper won an Oscar for his performance; York used his proceeds to fund an interdenominational Bible school.

— RAFER GUZMAN

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