Thursday, May 30, 2024

Peter Jackson’s ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ Makes History Come Alive

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Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old (TSNGO) is a bold new poetic exercise in empathy and time travel. He achieves the remarkable by using state of the art techniques for a forgotten and bygone era, World War I. Of all the eras, The Great War, is one rarely interrogated or explored by modern movies.

The Imperial War Museum approached Jackson and offered him unfettered access to their archives to make a documentary about anything he wished. To have such access and creative freedom is almost unheard of. For a director like Jackson, it must surely have been a dream come true.

Less interested in the political or the militaristic, he instead focuses on the humanistic. Following in the footsteps of films like Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam or I Am Not Your Negro, Jackson wishes to puncture the veil of history. Its a documentary aimed at setting you smack dab in the thick of it. A documentary four years in the making.

Jackson and his team painstakingly restored and colorized some one hundred hours of footage. To put it in perspective, the popularized image that pops to mind when you hear the words “silent movie” is wrong. The sped up image is, in fact, an error of projection. When transferred or projected at the wrong frame rate the image comes across as the stereotypical silent comedy; the breakneck speed with the frame jiggling slightly.

They had to take each reel and decipher the correct frame rate. Consider because of the age of the reels there was no way to figure it out other than trial and error. If the frame rate is too slow or too fast and the movements seem off, less authentic. 

Colorizing old black and white films is a practice I find abhorrent. But with TSNGO I didn’t mind mainly because Jackson and his team took great care to get the colors right. Take the German and British uniforms for example. The Germans wore grey and British khaki.  Both colors are not colors in their own right and require a mixture of colors to get the right shade. The filmmakers took such care as to make sure the basic hue of the uniforms was correct.

Archival footage, while well cared for, is susceptible to decay. The reason we tend to see the same footage over and over when it comes to historical documentaries is that it’s the only footage usable and available in the archives. So the filmmakers had to go through and with great care and time not only clean up the images but also rescue many images from the brink of vanishing forever.

As you can imagine one hundred hours of footage for a documentary a little over an hour and a half means there’s a lot of unused reels lying about. You might be surprised to learn, as I was, that Jackson, refurbished all the archive’s stock, even what he didn’t use, for free. On top of all of this, Jackson and his team sifted through countless audio interviews of WWI veterans talking about their lives before and during the war. Some 600 hours of interviews were amassed for TSNGO.

Soldier’s names are never used, nor are dates or locations. Instead, Jackson allows the voices to act as choral of ghostly voices guiding us through the war. Without the names of the battle or dates, TSNGO is able to transport us to the early twentieth century. The strange combination of specificity of voices and generality of arching narrative allows for a dream-like experience. Technical aspects aside TSNGO is a haunting and immersive visit to the past. The audio of the men are like ghosts from the past reaching out to bear witness.

Jackson takes us from England before the war, through the recruiting process, and into the dark heart of the trenches. Obviously, the cameramen of the day were unable to catch actual battle footage, but Jackson uses montages and slows down the footage when the men recount the charges across No Man’s Land.

So much of history tends to feel so long ago. Many people seem dismayed that race is still a hotbed of a debate while ignoring that Jim Crow laws are less than a lifetime ago. Jackson aims to remind us that the past remains visible and at times so close you can reach out to touch it.

So used are we to the idea of film it’s almost surreal to watch men seem taken aback by the idea of a moving picture camera. You can spot moments of soldiers in the background posing as if an old-school camera, which requires still movent, for prolonged periods of time. Technology has always been a part of our lives even then.

3D is the greatest technology of the 1950’s that studios have been trying to push on audiences for over a quarter of a century. Few filmmakers have found any way to use 3D as a way to add to either the language or the experience of cinema aside from a few cheap gimmicks. Three films leap to mind who have succeeded in showing the possibilities of 3D as something other than just a cheap excuse to charge an extra three dollars a ticket.

Martin Scorsese wowed us with Hugo. A film which also dealt with the past and the beginnings of cinema. Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams used 3D to bring ancient cave paintings to life. His belief that to understand the beauty of the paintings required us to be able to perceive the depth and curvature of the drawings against the rocks. And last would be Glee: The 3D Concert Movie. If only because if you haven’t seen Heather Morris sing and dance to Britney Spear’s I’m a Slave 4 U in 3D you have seen a paltry shadow of the real thing.

Jackson’s use of 3D for TSNGO is a fourth use of the technology to advance the art. The 3D is, I would argue, almost a necessity to the film. He doesn’t just use it as a gimmick. It brings the images alive as the voices echo in the darkness of the theater.

My only complaint is the bizarre roll out Jackson and his studio are doing for TSNGO. It is being shown for two days only with almost a week or two between each show. Obviously, it is an attempt to drum up buzz and whatever my complaints it seems to be working. Hopefully, it will be released wider so more people can see it.

They Shall Not Grow Old is a true experience unlike any other you’ll have this year at the movies; or any other year for that matter. The voices will cling to your memories long after the lights have come up. Jackson gives us a chance to glimpse history, not from the books, but by those who lived it.

Image courtesy of  Warner Bros.

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