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TNH movie review: ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’

One hundred years removed from the armistice that ended World War I, Peter Jackson, director of the famous “The Lord of the Rings” series, brings the conflict to life in a masterpiece of documentary storytelling.  

“They Shall Not Grow Old” documents the life of British soldiers on the Western Front in terrifying detail. To put the movie together, Jackson combed through hours of original film footage that was neglected by earlier filmmakers because it was overexposed, scratched or damaged in some other way. With incredible scrutiny, Jackson and his team of editors tediously restored the footage and removed the impurities. After the film was visible, Jackson began the painstaking process of colorizing all of it and slowing it down to remove the jitteriness iconic of old film. Because the old footage had no sound, Jackson brought in professional lip readers to decipher, if possible, what the men were saying. He then used British voice actors to recreate this dialogue in real time. For the rest of the footage, Jackson took snippets from interviews with British veterans conducted by the BBC in the ‘60s and ‘70s and played them over the film.  

In the interviews, the veterans told many different stories of what their life was like in the trenches, or what their combat experiences were, or how they came to enlist in the army and much more. This is what makes “They Shall Not Grow Old” go above and beyond any other World War I documentary that I have seen. The colorized footage adds a sense of realism to the war that original black and white footage never did, while Jackson’s audio work makes it seem like the soldiers on the screen are talking directly to the viewer, as if a century hasn’t gone by.  

“They Shall Not Grow Old” is definitely a must-watch for history buffs as well as those who may not know much of anything at all about World War I. In addition to making the film profoundly impactful and emotional, the colorized footage and lipreading turns what may seem like ancient film footage into something much more personal and accessible to a wider audience. It reminds us that the soldiers in the film are not too different from us, despite the 100-year time gap. Suffering is still suffering, and happiness is still happiness. The likes of which are shown by the faces of a past nearly forgotten. Thanks to Peter Jackson, however, that past has been brought back to life in vivid color.  

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