With They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson aims to convey to twenty-first-century audiences all the humanity and horror of the First World War. He’s taken footage and recordings of veterans from the archives of the BBC and the Imperial War Museum and added color, digital effects, and a third dimension to turn the conflict on the western front into an overwhelming, you-are-there experience. The film, whose title is a slight modernization of a line from Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem “For the Fallen,” saw a one-night-only premiere on Tuesday on 247 screens in theaters all across the UK as a presentation by the BFI London Film Festival. But as Andreas Wiseman reports for Deadline, even though there are plans for a BBC broadcast on Armistice Day, November 11, as well as screenings in every high school in the UK, the evening was such a smashing success that there’s now talk of an international and U.S. theatrical run.
For the first twenty minutes or so of They Shall Not Grow Old, audiences see the Great War as we always have, as scratchy, black-and-white images that in the past might have come off as a jerky slide show when projected at a rate of anywhere between ten and fifteen frames per second—the rate at which the original footage was shot—or as an unintentionally, almost sacrilegiously comic parade when projected at the now-standard twenty-four frames per second. In this opening section, British soldiers prepare to cross the Channel to fight the Germans. As Guy Lodge writes for Variety, the “coup de théâtre comes once we hit the trenches, as the frame expands, the monochrome palette blushes in shades of earth and military green, and suddenly, in a transition oddly akin to the iridescent lightbulb moment in The Wizard of Oz, this truly is the war as we’ve never seen it before. Years after the gratuitous exertions of his Hobbit trilogy, Jackson has found fresh, humane purpose to his ambitious technical artistry, opening up any number of exciting, slightly terrifying possibilities in the realm of archival documentary.”
Pamela Hutchinson, a silent film enthusiast who’s written extensively for the Guardian, Sight & Sound, and other publications, has more than a few problems with Jackson’s overall approach here. Perhaps the most serious objection she raises is that, with “all this CGI trickery,” the soldiers become “little more than motion-capture figures for Jackson’s team to drape with color and sound and stereoscopy.”
For the most part, though, Hutchinson is the outlier. Most critics have been impressed with the ways that, one hundred years after the war’s end, Jackson has made one of the defining events of the modern age come alive. “Watching this, I understood how the world wars of the twentieth century are said to have inspired surrealism,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. And the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin emphasizes that Jackson’s team does not shirk from the brutal reality of a war that was anything but glorious. “The carnage is depicted with total fearlessness and frankness,” he writes: “flies swarm on corpses, flesh is shown torn up like rags, soldiers are seen trembling with shell shock, while the shells themselves explode with terrifying fury and speed. German mines cause the ground to balloon up surreally, as if great subterranean monsters are breaching its surface: the link between Jackson’s six J. R. R. Tolkien-inspired films and Tolkien’s own experience of the trenches that would go on to shape his writing is unspoken but impossible to miss.” Ultimately, for the Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Dalton, They Shall Not Grow Old “suggests new cinematic methods of rescuing history from history books, humanizing and dramatizing true stories with a modest injection of movie-world artifice.”
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