With “They Shall Not Grow Old,” Jackson has applied new technology to century-old World War I footage to create a vivid, you-are-there feeling that puts real faces front and center and allows us to hear their stories in their own words.
The documentary, which will screen nationwide Dec. 17 and Dec. 27,concentrates on the experiences of British soldiers as revealed in footage from the archives of the Imperial War Museum. Jackson and his team have digitally restored the footage, adjusted its frame rate, colorized it and converted it to 3-D. They chose not to add a host or title cards. Instead, veterans of the war “narrate” — that is, the filmmakers culled their commentary from hundreds of hours of BBC interviews recorded in the 1960s and ’70s.
The result is a transformation that is nothing less than visually astonishing.
“The clarity was such that these soldiers on the film came alive,” Jackson said in a phone interview describing the restoration process. “Their humanity just jumped out at you. This footage has been around for 100 years and these men had been buried behind a fog of damage, a mask of grain and jerkiness and sped-up film. Once restored, it’s the human aspect that you gain the most.”
The film came about through a partnership between the Imperial War Museum and 14-18 Now, a cultural program that commissioned artists to create work for the centennial of World War I (1914-1918). They approached Jackson about contributing a film to the project.
“We discovered that Peter Jackson has a huge knowledge, expertise and passion for the First World War,” said Jenny Waldman, the director of 14-18 Now. Jackson’s grandfather was a professional soldier in the British Army before the war began, and served in the conflict for its duration.
The centennial project gave Jackson the freedom to make a film as he saw fit, but had two requirements: that he use only the footage from their archive and that he do it in an original way.
Jackson was given 100 hours of footage of varying levels of quality. “It was sometimes a duplicate of a duplicate of a duplicate,” he said.
Much of this material, of soldiers in training and then in the trenches, was shot for propaganda newsreels that would play in theaters between other movies.