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'They Shall Not Grow Old': Historic Achievement in Documentary

'Lord of the Rings' director Peter Jackson brings World War I footage back to life in a riveting film

Rating: R

Run time: 1 hour 39 minutes

Stars: Real World War I veterans

Director: Peter Jackson

The first critical-hit film of 2019 was shot in 1914-18’s World War I, archived in Britain’s Imperial War Museum, and converted into a sensational-looking movie by director Peter Jackson, 57. It’s only appropriate that Jackson should make the world’s greatest Great War documentary: His $4.7 billion Lord of the Rings saga was begun by 2nd Lt. J.R.R. Tolkien in the trenches of the Somme. It was the worst battle in British history, with more than a million casualties, and killed most of Tolkien's best friends. No Man’s Land, the desolate moonscape between the armies, became the Dead Marshes of Mordor, and the heroic working-class soldiers who served Oxford-educated officers like him became Sam Gamgee and the other Hobbits. This film is dedicated to Jackson’s grandpa, who did not grow old thanks to Great War injuries.

To re-create the scene of the real Dead Marshes, Jackson drew on 100 hours of footage of these formerly anonymous heroes, some of it so black or overexposed you couldn’t see much of anything, plus 600 hours of interviews with vets done half a century after the war, and drawings of battles from the 1914-18 magazine The War Illustrated.  With Gandalfian tech wizardry, the director changed the jerky footage from a hand-cranked 13 frames per second to a smooth modern 24, and added new camera movements, panning and zooming into close-ups.

Crucially, he freed the faces of the soldiers — some as young as 14 — from the murk. One group looks glum because almost everyone in the scene knows he has about half an hour to live before going over the top to be mown down by machine guns. (In Tolkien, evil is mechanized.) But amazingly often, the soldiers are smiling, most of them with worse teeth than Austin Powers, reflecting bad dentistry and the fact that most soldiers used their toothbrushes to clean things other than teeth. They’re also smiling because there’s a camera present, which you seldom saw back then: One says, “We’re in pictures!” Using forensic lip readers, Jackson figured out what many soldiers were saying, and hired actors to lip-sync their lines. He used sound effects, firing cannons and rifles comparable to the old ones for authentic booms and whooshing projectiles, recorded Foley artists’ boots squelching mud, even added the squeaks of the ubiquitous rats who fattened on the fallen troops.

Aided by deep research and visits to original battle sites, he colorized the old black and white footage with artistic skill. Film purists grumble about this, but as Jackson says in the fascinating, touching epilogue about how he put the film together, it’s one thing when someone colorizes a film whose director wanted it to be black and white, whereas every Great War cameraman would have seized the chance to use color. Jackson shot the film both in 2-D and 3-D — which usually leaves me cold, but this 3-D works brilliantly. The film starts out in black and white because there wasn’t budget enough to colorize it all, and this gives the transition to color (and 3-D) a Wizard of Oz punch.

The result is utterly immersive: You are there alongside the real-life Sam Gamgees, seeing basic training, infernal battles, male bonding, frolics between horrors, gangrene, men crucified on barbed wire, traumatized homecomings to civilians who can’t imagine what you’ve been through. Through They Shall Not Grow Old, you can imagine.

At the end of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien sends his good soldier Sam to the Undying Lands. For the casualties of World War I — more than 50 million if you count the victims of the flu pandemic the trenches spawned — Jackson has done a comparable service, preserving them forever.

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