Cinema can be a powerful way to transport modern audiences back to historical times that predate our lives. In They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson actually brought World War I up to the present.
Using the latest technology, Jackson’s technical wizards upgraded BBC’s World War I film footage into normal speed, full color, 3D sound film. If this is the first try, it’s exciting to imagine what else could be modernized so vividly.
Old film always looks like old film. It moves a little too fast because it was filmed at different frame rates before 24 frames per second was standardized.
Now the footage has been smoothed out so the WWI soldiers not only move at normal film speed, but in normal real life speed. That is the greatest achievement of this restoration, but there’s more.
The colorization looks natural. They’ve had a few decades since Ted Turner’s colorization experiments to perfect this. 3D isn’t drastic and I wonder if a 2D version would look even more natural.
The footage is not perfect, but it’s extraordinary. You can see all the texture in the dirt trenches, mounds and hills.
The detail in people’s faces vary, but it’s no secret the source material was imperfect. Some faces look vivid as they stare down the camera lens. A few look like creepy CGI monstrosities but they’re all worth giving screen time to these soldiers who may have died shortly after the footage was taken.
Animals actually look the most photoreal. Must be something about the fur on a goat or a dog that translates best to 2018 cinema quality.
Focus varies, but what can you do? I’m not going to yell at the focus puller for losing focus in the middle of a battlefield.
Just hearing synchronized sound for minor overlapping dialogue is a miracle. Imagine how they figured out what they were saying in silent footage, by reading their lips.
They Shall Not Grow Old is at heart a traditional documentary. Narrators share experiences from World War I as footage illustrates their stories.
There is graphic footage of battlefield death, and also down time where they found ways to goof off. It’s not political. The British Army just accepts that fighting the Germans is right.
When they meet German soldiers, they’re really in the same boat. They just have to do what their government told them to, but both sides would prefer to just not be in a war.
So, a warning, but the first 25 minutes of They Shall Not Grow Old is just the normal old timey footage. I did not know this and I was like, “Seriously Peter Jackson? That’s your high tech restoration?”
But bookending the restoration with more old fashioned black and white footage is an important point of comparison. When you see the soldiers marching at normal speed, it’s a revelation. Just don’t get antsy like I did.
In the early 20th century, film was a brand new technology. Now this early 21st century digital technology is giving it new life. It’s a marriage of two cinematic births.
They Shall Not Grow Old is in theaters Friday, December 14.