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'They Shall Not Grow Old': Peter Jackson's Masterpiece War Memorial

Our war memorials are usually made of brass or stone. But Peter Jackson’s astonishing new film They Shall Not Grow Old is a war memorial for the big screen.

Jackson’s film has done the impossible: He has created a time machine.  Jackson was given access to the sound and video archives of the Imperial War Museum and tasked with producing a documentary about World War I in time for the centenary commemoration of the armistice on November 11, 2018. (Link to trailer here.)

After playing to sold-out theaters across the United Kingdom in October, the film will show just one more day in the United States – December 27.  December 17, the only day the film has shown so far in the United States, saw packed theaters.

Jackson’s film portrays the World War I soldier as you have never seen him: in color, in high definition, and with sound.

They Shall Not Grow Old painstakingly cleans up the old jerky films of the Great War.  It removes the blemishes, turns them into clean high definition, and colorizes them with thorough, painstaking accuracy.  The film speed is even reset to natural motion, so no more unnatural gaits.

Jackson’s technical wizardry turns the landscapes of France into something vivid, expansive, and apocalyptic.

But it’s the faces of the young soldiers that will haunt you.  Instead of the old washed herky-jerky films with their blurry soldiers marching by, Jackson uses modern technology to wipe clean the dust of a century and draw out the real people who endured unendurable trench life.

The faces are so young.

They are the kids down the street. They are the people you see every day in your own life.  They gaze at you across the century and change forever the history of the Western Front in your heart.

An officer reads a morale-boosting charge before a company roars into the hell of the Somme in the summer of 1916.  Jackson’s filmmakers dug up the original orders from that day and produced a voiceover of an officer using the geographically correct dialect based on the regional unit insignia.  Indeed, Jackson employed lip readers and voice actors from the correct regions of the United Kingdom throughout the film to provide dialog anytime onscreen lips move.

You just cannot shake the faces.

In the first sweeping scene where Jackson transitions the film from the familiar black and white footage from the war to his opening, surreal, horrific, colorized portion (think of Dorothy waking up in anti-Oz), the camera follows a British solider no more than 18 years old attempting to navigate a scarred, muddy hell-scape.

The British solider also follows the camera following him.  His bright young eyes gaze at you in the carnage.  He grabs a shattered splintered tree stump to help himself out of the trench, yet his gaze never abandons the cameraman from a century ago.  The fine long splinters of the stump – shockingly fine thanks to Jackson’s work – are the product of violence the earth cannot withstand.