They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not Grow Old

By Marcia Allen, Collection Services Manager

We’ve all seen the old footage of films made during World War I: the fuzzy black and white tones, the quick jerkiness of movement, the scratches and streaks that detract from our viewing.  While such films give the authentic experience of that horrible conflict, their flaws make them seem unrealistic and far removed from our lives.

They Shall Not Grow Old” is a newly purchased film (in both Blu-ray and DVD format) at the library that is a must for just about everyone.  This incredible film is a compilation of one-hundred-year-old footage of World War I from the British perspective.  We see the men signing up for service, the issuing of uniforms, the training for combat and the troop movement toward the battle fronts.  We watch day-to-day life in the trenches, with men preparing rations, digging into the trench walls, and climbing over obstacles for combat against German forces.  We see the carnage of the battlefields, littered with dead soldiers and mangled horses.  And we view the movement of battle-weary forces when the war has finally ended.

We’ve seen such footage before, but something is very different about this production.  Famed director Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings Trilogy”) carefully studied hundreds of hours of old films to mark the centenary celebration of the end of World War I, and his crew began a painstaking task of splicing the films into a single production made more realistic with modern film editing techniques.  The special feature that accompanies the film (“The Making of They Shall Not Grow Old”) relates the steps the crew completed.

One of their first tasks was to edit the jerkiness of old footage.  Since those original films were created by photographers with hand-held cameras that had to be cranked, films always had those jumpy movements we’ve all seen.  The editing involved working with warped and scratched film, made even more fragile by the passage of time.  Jackson also slowed the film play, so any movements made during the original exposure smoothed out.  As a result, the whole pace of troops, war craft, and animals became much more lifelike.  He also lightened up some of the darkened recordings, so suddenly facial expressions and scenery emerged from what was previously featureless shadows.  Then, Jackson began the very difficult task of colorizing the films.  To accomplish this, he inspected and matched preserved original uniforms and insignias, supplied authentic skin tones, and matched tones with period weaponry.  He even created color for natural elements, like countryside grass, which he explained was extremely difficult to do.

The accompanying sound is a masterpiece of work.  Of course, all the original films were silent, so Jackson had the freedom to add what he felt was appropriate.  He focused on period music, adding popular songs at the time and instrumental music that would match up with scenes in which relaxed troops were playing instruments.

Previously recorded interviews with World War I veterans are also woven throughout the film.  When we view scenes, such as troops winding their way through trenches, we hear the voices of old veterans describing their fears and the many horrendous obstacles they had to face.  We learn of their memories of lost comrades during the awful destruction of combat.  We witness their fears and their realization of how very much life has changed.

Some who have viewed this film complain that there is no plot to be found.  While that is true, we have a glimpse into the reality of World War I never before seen.  You will find yourself mesmerized by the humanization of that long ago war.

by Alyssa Yenzer