When Oscar-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson was commissioned by the British Imperial War Museum to curate more than 600 hours of World War I archival footage, he had no idea what might come of it.
The resulting documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, surpasses all expectations for such a project. It’s a monumental achievement in film preservation and a powerful tribute to the courage and camaraderie of those along the front lines during the Great War.
Jackson uses digital technology to remarkably transfer grainy black-and-white footage from a century ago into eye-popping 3D color. Visually, the project is startling and exhilarating — an experience for film historians and war buffs alike.
The film recaps the war by re-editing the museum’s footage with narration culled from 1960s-era BBC interviews with United Kingdom soldiers who fought on the Western Front, primarily in France and Belgium as part of the British Expeditionary Force.
It chronicles their harrowing battles in the trenches (sometimes in graphic detail) as well as the lighthearted moments in pubs or barracks, leading up to the ceasefire on Armistice Day in November 1918.
What starts out as an educational project you might see in a museum visitor center winds up so much more. This isn’t merely colorizing classic movies for cable television, as was a notorious practice during the 1980s. These images and sound enhancements are sharp and vivid, and palpably enrich the source material.
As he demonstrated in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, Jackson is typically at the forefront of cinematic technological innovations. In this case, even a side project is a painstaking restoration effort that turns into a technical milestone.
The immersive and heartfelt project doesn’t aim to be a comprehensive examination of the war. There’s no broader context or editorial judgment outside of the perspective of the anonymous faces and voices who loosely guide the story. Its structure lacks the action of a more traditional war film, of course, as the anecdotes from anonymous soldiers gradually become repetitive.
However, They Shall Not Grow Old not only thrillingly preserves this footage, but also the memories of these men whose bravery and sacrifice deserve another salute 100 years later.