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War documentaries have earned a bit of a reputation as being a genre so rote and voluminous that their arrival isn't heralded as anything terribly special. And yet, much like any type of artistic endeavor, the right approach can lead to a unique view of familiar territory. Not only does director Peter Jackson's World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old provide more insight into the often overlooked subject of war on the Western Front, it does so with an artistic panache that immerses the audience in actual footage of British soldiers in the fight.
Upon being commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to create a project honoring the centenary anniversary of World War I, Peter Jackson restored footage shot during the conflict in order to be presented to a modern audience. Through colorization, a 3D conversion, and audio from the veterans that lived through The Great War themselves, They Shall Not Grow Old paints a portrait of how the English met the challenges of the conflict ahead of them. From the outbreak of the war and its ensuing enlistments through to Armistice Day, we're made to experience the total war through the eyes of those on the ground.
If They Shall Not Grow Old is being evaluated as merely an artistic exercise, it passes with flying colors. The level of restoration that Jackson and his team have been able to execute on footage that's at least a century old is astounding, especially in the bookending segments when the film displays civilian life before and after the war. But it's the main event, where the film turns into an immersive 3D experience that not only adds color, but depth, to said restored footage that truly is a sight to see. There's even the effective addition of a soundtrack, as well as sound effects and what could be considered dialogue, as the soldiers speaking in the footage truly come to life with someone giving them a voice.
However, it's the historical merits that truly push They Shall Not Grow Old into must-see status, as the fact that Peter Jackson was able to put together a cohesive narrative with predominantly film and audio archives is astounding. You're hearing the men who lived through World War I talking about the experiences they had first hand, while watching actual footage and images captured during World War I. Rather than just present this archival material in a stodgy, traditional fashion, Jackson uses his resources to tremendous effort and makes a story that grips the viewer. Both the atrocities and the camaraderie of World War I are on display in full effect, and both are combined in such a way that you really feel both throughout the film.
They Shall Not Grow Old is truly a passion project for Jackson, as he dedicates the film to his grandfather and two other New Zealanders who served in World War I. So it's positively gratifying to see the director's interest in the story translate to the loving care that was visited on not only the film, which was upconverted to 2K picture quality, but also the scope of the subject that's covered. Though, in his introduction to the film, Peter Jackson admits that the film is a bit narrow focused, as it was a project that stays solely in the trenches of the Western Front. But seeing what he did with just one facet of this multi-tiered conflict, it would be a welcome prospect to see him visit other fronts of the war, such as the naval theater of battle or the efforts of those in the air.
They Shall Not Grow Old tells the story of a nation ready to fight for what they believed in, and the cost it paid to get out alive and victorious. It is required viewing for history buffs, military aficionados, and everyone in-between. Most importantly, it's a portrait of the humanity that underlies this and all great conflicts, a subject that can always use more attention when discussing the concept of warfare. Because if we forget who we were before we fought, and the reasons why we fought, the conflict will never end. If you enjoy a war documentary that shows its subject with a living, breathing pulse, They Shall Not Grow Old is absolutely required viewing.