Review: They Shall Not Grow Old
By now, you’ve no doubt heard what a technological marvel Peter Jackson’s WWI documentary They Shall Not Grow Old truly is. On the off-chance that you haven’t, what sets this important film apart from previous such efforts is that Jackson and his team took hundreds of hours of raw footage from the Imperial War Museums’ film archives, cleaned it up, colorized it, and used video processing technology to transform the choppy, hand-cranked stock into smooth 24-frame-per-second film. That fact alone is what originally drew me to this documentary, although I never had the opportunity to see it in its brief run in American cinemas.
Despite that—despite having watched all of the behind-the-scenes material I could get my hands on, despite having seen many an A/B comparison between the stock footage and the restored film—I wasn’t quite prepared for the emotional impact
transition to color
of this technological wizardry. There’s a scene, about 25 minutes into the film, in which the grainy, torn, jerky black-and-white transitions into artfully colorized, naturally fluid high-definition video. In that instant, a switch flips in your brain. The historical characters on the screen suddenly become living, breathing men. Or boys, to be more precise. They magically transform from flat artifacts to three-dimensional human beings. And the psychological impact of that phase transition is equal parts wonder, empathy, and horror.
That’s really your first clue that these restoration efforts have nothing to do with spectacle or presentation. The goal here isn’t to make your display come alive with pretty pictures. It’s to bring the men who fought the “the war to end all wars” to life in a way that’s never been possible before.
That fact is borne out in every other aspect of the film, most pointedly in the fact that there is no overarching narration here, no real historical perspective. The footage focuses solely on the efforts of the British infantry on the western front, but that’s never explained. Aside from reenacted dialogue created to match the footage, the only voices we hear here are taken from interviews of the survivors of these battles.
And the story they tell is a complex one. Yes, we get insight into the horrors they faced. But we also get some shockingly honest recollections
of pleasant memories. One interviewee describes the early days of the war as something akin to a camping trip. And the dark humor that these men and boys relied on to take the edge off of their squalid conditions permeates the film as well.
But more than anything else, what’s shocking about the narration is how blunt the survivors of WWI are in coming to terms with their own experiences in the war. There’s a strange dichotomy that arises from the fact that, for the first time, we as viewers feel that we can relate to these brave warriors, only to have them explain in their own words why any attempt at empathy on our part is ultimately futile, because the only people who truly understood them were their own brothers-in-arms.
At any rate, for all of the fuss that I and others have made about the technical aspects of the film, it may come as a surprise that it’s only being released to the home in 1080p, not 4K with HDR. After seeing the film, I can understand why. Despite the impressive cleanup job done to the footage, we’re still talking about 100-year-old film here. There almost certainly weren’t any additional pixels to be extracted from the source material. And the colorization, while truly stunning, always errs toward the side of subtlety. A wider color palette would simply be wasted here, driving up the price for no good reason.
What’s more, even in HD, you can see some occasional imperfections introduced by the restoration process: Skin sometimes looks waxy, eyes and mustaches occasionally morph and jump in a really wonky way as the computers try to recreate frames that never existed or were damaged beyond repair, and occasionally the textures are a little off. That’s not a criticism, mind you, especially given that Jackson and his team made a 140-minute film on a budget allocated for thirty minutes tops. (They also restored a total of 100 hours of footage for the Imperial War Museums, pro bono.) It’s simply to reiterate that you shouldn’t view They Shall Not Grow Old as an AV demo.
But you should enjoy it on the best home cinema system possible, nonetheless—especially to appreciate the work that Jackson et al. did in recreating the sonic landscape of the war. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack accompanying Kaleidescape’s release of the film does a wonderful job of complementing the video in its efforts to bring this old (silent) footage to life.
Also accompanying the Kaleidescape release is an important bonus feature that seems to be missing from the Vudu release: A 28-minute interview with Peter Jackson conducted at the BFI London Film Festival. The personal and historical perspective that this interview brings to the table is welcome, but it isn’t necessary. The film really speaks for itself.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.