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They Shall Not Grow Old: Like Saying Hello to Ghosts From Over a Century Ago

Posted on the 22 January 2019 by Weminoredinfilm.com @WeMinoredInFilm

It feels strange that World War I - the war to end all wars and one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history - would need a special colorized documentary to finally make us appreciate how bad it really was, yet here we are, marveling at Peter Jackson and Weta's digital facelift of 100-year-old footage.

You don't get that feeling right away, though. Instead, They Shall Not Grow Old begins like your average History Channel war documentary - archival interviews from surviving soldiers play over a mixture of old propaganda cartoons and B-roll footage of young men training for a war they barely understand. It's all in black and white, quite dry, and enough to put you to sleep if you aren't a history nerd. (I actually am, but even I was dozing off.)

But then it happens. The black & white imagery on screen, originally presented in a boxed format and purposefully playing as if we can hear the old projector spinning the film reels, gradually expands to full screen. Then, without warning, it all switches to vibrant color and sound, like a history lesson which suddenly invites you to travel back through time. British soldiers, young and old, are given color, voice, and natural movement, something they've never had before since when they were alive film was black & white, silent, and shot at 13-15 frames a second.

Jackson and his team have changed all of that:

These are, after all, the same people who either pioneered or perfected countless technical aspects of filmmaking through Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Now they're exercising a slightly different muscle, using special effects trickery to update the footage to 24 frames a second and hiring lip-reading experts as well as carefully chosen voice actors to best approximate what the soldiers were saying in the footage.

The results are so stunning Peter Jackson is already looking at other old footage for them to restore, including his own early movies which have never made it to Blu-Ray. However, while the exact lengths Jackson went to are unprecedented the actual act of colorizing old war footage isn't new. Anyone remember World War II in Color, World Media's heavily hyped documentary series from a decade ago? If not, it's on Netflix now and the effect of giving more immediacy to the past through vibrant colorization is similar.

They Shall Not Grow Old: Like Saying Hello to Ghosts From Over a Century Ago

So, the marketing hook of They Shall Not Grow Old isn't entirely new, but nobody has tried this for footage quite this old before. As a result, there is also something uniquely macabre about this. The footage we are seeing has been recovered from old, unprocessed reels which were found inside, essentially, a WWI museum basement. Given how old it is, we glimpse the faces on screen with the absolute guarantee that they are all long since dead. It's like saying hello to ghosts from over a century ago.

Peter Jackson seems to be feeling that as well, though. So, he leans into it and uses it to gut punch us. Once we've been sucked into all the voice over stories and perfectly edited footage of the day-to-day life in the trenches, we quickly and quite brutally see just how many of the men given new life by this colorization process never even made it out of the war. Smiling faces are juxtaposed with unflinchingly graphic shots of mangled bodies and blown apart heads, as the absolute horror of life along No Man's Land is depicted to horrifying effect.

However, They Shall Not Grow Old has its flaws. There is a slight uncanny valley feel to some of the restored imagery.

They Shall Not Grow Old: Like Saying Hello to Ghosts From Over a Century Ago

Plus, since this work was originally commissioned by England's Imperial War Museum there is a one-sidedness to it all. Jackson's source material is old footage of British soldiers and old BBC Radio interviews conducted with WWI survivors decades after the fact. As such, the story told is an exclusively British one. The only voice for the other side is limited to whenever Germans are taken prisoner in the footage. Those who know little to nothing about WWI will likely walk away not completely understanding the exact intricacies.

That's oddly fitting, though, because as They Shall Not Grow Old makes clear the soldiers fighting in the war felt the same way. They didn't know why they were there. They didn't know who was winning or losing. They just wanted it to end, and then once it did they struggled to ever be the same again.

Or, to put it more obviously, war is hell. WWI was especially horrific, and thanks to They Shall Not Grow Old some of its long-since dead casualties have been given a voice. To this point, WWI has always been one of those conflicts you read about in books. Now you can actually see and feel it through this film.


Peter Jackson made this a love letter to his grandpa, a WWI veteran who died a physically and spiritually broken man at 50. Jackson wanted to bring to the screen all the stories he heard about his grandpa growing up. Most people are in the same boat. If they personally know WWI at all, it's through stories handed down from grandparents or great-great grandparents. Otherwise, they know it through history books or movies like All Quiet on the Western Front or maybe just Wonder Woman.

Not anymore. Thanks to They Shall Not Grow Old, the anonymous dead of history have been given a chance to remind us they were normal people just trying their best to get a job done while rubbing right up against the increasing mechanization of war. Peter Jackson's pioneering film restoration techniques used to make this happen don't produce entirely flawless results, but the overall effect is still stunning.


Check out this Radio Times interview with Jackson for more details on how exactly they pulled this off.

They Shall Not Grow Old: Like Saying Hello to Ghosts From Over a Century Ago

Grew up obsessing over movies and TV shows. Worked in a video store. Minored in film at college because my college didn't offer a film major. Worked in academia for a while. Have been freelance writing and running this blog since 2013. View all posts by Kelly Konda

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