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They Shall Not Grow Old
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by Jay Seaver

"At the very least, an intriguing bit of restoration and recreation."
3 stars

It won't be the case for all who watch "They Shall Not Grow Old", but for many viewers, some of the most interesting material will not be in the documentary itself, but the half-hour "making-of" package that is being shown afterward as part of it's two-date American release (and which will likely be included on the eventual disc). The assembly of World War I footage is itself impressive and informative, but it's the way director Peter Jackson puts it together, transforming it into a color three-dimensional film, that sets it apart.

The film is built out of footage from the the United Kingdom's Imperial War Museum (roughly 100 hours shot between 1914 and 1918) and interviews with veterans mostly done around the half-centenary for the BBC. Jackson has whittled that down to 90 minutes that focuses on the typical experience for a soldier during the war, from how many who enlisted were younger than the supposed minimum age of 19, to the six weeks of training, to serving on the front lines in dirty, dangerous trenches while much of the action was actually determined by the use of artillery. There is, at least in retrospect, little animosity toward the German soldiers and a sense of being drained after the war ended.

Jackson limits the film to the men on the ground rather than spreading his attention out to include planes, leadership, or the homefront, so he certainly hasn't made the definitive WWI doc (I am curious as to whether the Imperial War Museum and BBC have the footage necessary for this to be the first in a series), but that's generally okay. The steady stream of narration that bridges bits of footage leaves him and the audience with little time to have their attention stray. Though there is a bit of repetition at times, he generally avoids the feeling that his focus is too narrow, and the combination of grandfatherly voices and unglamorous visuals gets the experience across without putting the soldiers on too much of a pedestal. The nature of cobbling the film together from footage taken over the course of the war and a hundred relatively anonymous voices does mean that the film is never able to get across the grueling length of it - it feels like something which lasted months rather than years - which seems like something Jackson and company might have wanted to include; piecing together the story of an average soldier can leave one a bit disconnected to any of them in particular

That's mainly the audio, though; what Jackson and company have done with 100-year-old footage is impressive on a couple levels: It's as technically excellent a job of restoration and conversion as you'll see on what is likely a bit of a limited budget, no doubt helped some by Jackson's well-known affinity for the period and obsessive attention to detail, and a fair job of storytelling to take what he has and put it together into something that does have a narrative thread. The audience is never unaware that this has been inside a computer for colorization, 3D conversion, and more-conventional Foley and ADR work - there are moments when the warping of the film interacts oddly with algorithms expecting something cleaner - but it's done well enough for one to accept it as the best approximation of what being there must have been like.

It is, sometimes, a bit less than completely immersive; for all that the film is able to show daily life quite well, photographers were not generally sent into actual combat, so Jackson covers those scenes with authentic period illustrations and smash-cuts, showing his hand a bit more. There are also times when one may wonder, a bit, just how much a given shot has been tweaked and recolored (was a late shot meant to be almost a silhouette, or did Stereo D not brighten it as much as they did others?), or if something meant to be 3D might have been shot differently, closer to the ground. Those who have a hard line against colorization and 3D conversion likely won't come to see them as useful tools, but those who haven't given it much thought may be intrigued by the potential.

Fair disclosure: The theater where I saw this movie messed up the projection for the first half-hour or so, producing irritation and eyestrain rather than immersion for a fair chunk of the running time. It's hard to judge how I would have reacted to that part had things gone right, especially since that's where the film generally seemed weakest, spending a lot of time on training with little happening. It's frustrating, because opportunities to see it in this format will likely be few and far between, and even if it's not a definitive documentary, it's a unique filmgoing experience.

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originally posted: 12/19/18 12:17:07
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  17-Dec-2018 (R)

  09-Nov-2018 (15)

  N/A (MA)

Directed by
  Peter Jackson

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