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Blast from the Past

World War I like you’ve never seen it

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We’ve seen plenty of World War I movies, but never one quite like They Shall Not Grow Old. Comprising archival footage, propaganda and photo stills, which have been digitally remastered and colorized in 3D, the documentary is a fascinating look at the experiences of soldiers during the Great War.

Through interviews with British soldiers, whom we hear but never see, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson shows us the life of a grunt before, during and after the war. It took Jackson and his team roughly a year to catalogue more than 700 hours of footage (much of which has never been seen) at the Imperial War Museum in London; they then selected their material and whittled the film down to a 99-minute run time. The result is a testament to those who had no idea they were sacrificing so much for the freedom of others.

The opening half-hour is in black-and-white, and it shares the mind-frame of most young men as the war began: brash, eager, ignorant and completely bereft of any sense of despair. They didn’t even have a solid grasp of why Great Britain was fighting in the first place, but one man sums up the jingoism of the day when he says, “We couldn’t possibly lose.”

Once the men get to the battlefield, the movie turns to color—because, for the soldiers, things got very real very fast. The colorization isn’t perfect—some faces look distorted and/or partially animated—but the jolt of reality serves its purpose, allowing the viewer to emotionally connect. To be sure, there’s plenty you don’t want to see, from dead bodies tangled in barbed wire to gangrenous limbs, ripe for amputation. It all works effectively, though, to bring these men to life once again, and allows for an appreciation that would otherwise not be so palpably felt.

This is far from a Hollywood war movie, the sort of film in which the conflict with the enemy is sometimes secondary to rivalries within one’s own platoon. Here, instead of high drama, we learn minute details such as uncomfortable boots making it hard to march, the general indifference toward horrible food, and how the soldiers battled lice, rats and other animals. It’s a revelation, an insight into an unpleasant life that also included sleeping upright (because the water in the trenches was chest-deep) and the haunting stories of reckless 15- and 16-year-olds, who lied about their age to enlist, only to find themselves in way over their heads.

It’s curious Jackson doesn’t identify the soldiers speaking, but it serves his purpose. He doesn’t want They Shall Not Grow Old to be about an individual soldier; he wants the men we see to represent all the roughly one million British Empire soldiers who died in the war. It may be a bit tedious at times but, overall, Jackson has succeeded wonderfully.

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