“They Shall Not Grow Old” arrives as clinching proof of just how far Peter Jackson has traveled in three decades. Few would have predicted that the beardy yahoo mixing oatmeal and yogurt to make alien vomit for 1987’s “Bad Taste” would wind up collaborating with London’s hallowed Imperial War Museum on a project to mark the centenary of WWI, but then, history has a way of surprising us all. Now an Academy Award-bearing elder statesman, Jackson has been entrusted with the keys to the archive containing some of the so-called Great War’s most delicate and indelible images. Wearing its sincerity like an Armistice Day poppy, the resulting montage-film – which premiered at the London Film Festival ahead of future TV transmissions – does its utmost to honor the conflict’s fallen.
Jackson’s boldest choice has been to colorize some footage, and – for theatrical screenings – retrofit it with the 3D of his Hobbit sagas. Instantly, “They Shall Not Grow Old” risks reopening and expanding the ferocious debate that broke out around Ted Turner’s late-‘80s decision to colorize classic films, much as Marina Amaral’s colorized photos of WWII concentration camps have recently sparked heated art world discussions on morality and Photoshop. Jackson’s reasoning is that black-and-white was not how his subjects experienced life during wartime, and it’s true that his carefully chosen hues unlock a certain immediacy secreted in these images. Here lies a generation in the first flushes of ruddy-cheeked youth, which makes any eventual sacrifices at Passchendaele and Ypres more palpably tragic.
We are, however, eased in gently. The film opens in a newsreel ratio, with familiar images of marching Tommies accompanied by the reassuring whirr of a manually loaded projector. Recruitment posters (such as the iconic “Daddy, What Did You Do in The Great War?”) are the first artifacts that pop out at us in color, a choice that feels far less contentious than working over dead men’s faces. And if rummaging in the archive has presented Jackson’s researchers with hours of usable footage, this has been assembled with a discipline those well-regimented Tommies would have recognized. We pass, as these men passed, through medicals and basic training, before shipping out to Europe; only around the halfway mark does Jackson make the decisive shift to full colorization.
Until then, the soundtrack does much of the heavy lifting. What Jackson gravitates towards in the survivors’ oral histories is any trace of irreverence: there’s much good-natured yet revealing griping about rations, uniform (“In the Army, it isn’t that your boots don’t fit your feet; they say your feet don’t fit the boots”) and accommodations. (One visual surprise here: the sheer number of photos the Museum has accumulated of troops squatting bare-assed and perilous over makeshift latrines. There may be an official Keeper of the Grubby Butt Pics.) The testimony, at least, is cleaner than you’d expect from those obliged to kill for King and country, but it’s the language that most connects these images to 1918, dotted with phenomena (“plum duff”, “hookworm”) we’ve since evolved beyond.
While some recall their service with boyish pep, inevitably the shadow of death comes to loom large. It’s crucial that the transition to full color only comes once we’re at the front, with green and pleasant England behind us, and that those colors should be so mournfully muted: the soldiers’ khaki, the indistinct browns of much-trodden ground, the sickly sepia-yellow of mustard gas. We’re not spared the sight of life-drained bodies lying at horrific angles over barbed wire, though Jackson — still the occasional gorehound — is also aware of the shocking notes human crimson can add to an image palette. (There’s even something a touch William Castle-like about one insert showing the Technicolor rot of a gangrenous foot: instructional, yes, but not what you’d want looming out at you in 3D.)
If the project supports any specific colorization argument, it’s that the process may be better off detailing the lifeless than it is the living. Whenever the image lingers on the latter, faces start to appear oddly zombie-like, caught between no-man’s-land and the uncanny valleys of Jackson’s dubiously digitized “Tintin” adaptation, neither as dead as we know them to be, nor quite as alive as the filmmaker wants them. (The consolation of black-and-white imagery: it states, definitively, that this is a thing of the past.) Certain piquant effects would presumably be as evident in monochrome as they are in Jacksoncolor. Soldiers are seen playing to camera, testing their visibility and this new technology; their hard-won, uncertain smiles reveal British dentistry, ever-embattled, to have incurred several further hits.
Some may also cavil at the presumptions that mark “They Shall Not Grow Old” as the work of a born fabulist rather than a historian or journalist. Trench scenes have been remixed to lend them an atmosphere – a life – absent from more conventionally framed documentary, playing out to a Dolbyfied rumble of shells, while its previously silent subjects are given rhubarbing voice. A sequence of cuts between troop close-ups and bodies on the ground generates a powerful emotional effect, but also implies causal links – that this man died like this – which cannot be verified. What the man who filmed Helm’s Deep is ultimately compelled by is this conflict’s unprecedented, oft-horrific spectacle, hoping that humanity never again becomes so entrenched in its thinking and movements.
Perhaps that makes this conflict more vivid, rather than deepening our understanding: there’s scant socio-political context, little sense of why these men were fighting. Yet “They Shall Not Grow Old” succeeds in cracking open a closed-off historical moment, carrying its traces beyond war buffs towards youngsters who might only know Franz Ferdinand as an art-rock band, and who might believe grainy monochrome images taken on a distant shore several lifetimes ago bear no meaning to their lives. At the very least, Jackson will have smuggled what were previously museum pieces onto screens across the world at a time when that world might learn something from them. By liberating this footage, and holding it up to 21st century light, his project renders all that was old in a jolting, powerful new context.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” premieres at the 2018 London Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution and now playing theatrically in the United Kingdom.