Friday, February 1, 2019

'They Shall Not Grow Old' Brightens A Dark Past

Pictured left: Not Walt Disney

When I was in college, I saw the short film A Trip Down Market Street for the first time. The mini documentary is a real time, unedited look at pre-quake 1906 San Francisco. The camera is mounted to the front of the cable car as it captures people, cars, and horse-drawn carriages weaving and bobbing out of the frame before it reaches the end of its journey, when the cable car, and camera, does a 180. Newsboys then gather in front of the cable car, mug for the camera, and the film ends.

Watching it was a revelation; it felt like the closest thing to time travel we'd ever be able to experience. Because there's nothing staged about the footage, it captures the feeling of life at the time better than most photographs and film reels from the era can. I had a similar feeling watching Peter Jackson's World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, as if I were seeing a part of history with clear eyes for the first time.

Jackson is able to capture this time travel feeling in ways that are quite different from A Trip Down Market Street. This is not a real time, cinema vérité, glimpse into the past; it's very carefully constructed. Jackson and his crew took over 100 hours of archival footage from the British Imperial War Museum, edited it into a rough narrative, cleaned it up, colorized it, and time corrected it, getting rid of the jerky motion inherent in early 20th century film. Sound effects were also added (the din of artillery fire and bombings is a constant), as well as some dialogue (lip readers were utilized to figure out what was being said in the silent footage). Add 3D to the mix, and you've got perhaps the most immersive look into the Great War that's ever been produced. (Archival black and white footage filmed off the battlefield, in England and the French coast, bookends the film.)

The process is not, however, flawless. CG techniques are sometimes used to define soldiers' faces that have likely blurred and softened in the original old film stock, and the effect is often uncomfortably cartoonish. And it has to be said, there's something slightly ghoulish about meticulously colorizing the wounds on a dead soldier so that the blood is just the right color of darkening red.

What helps the film rise above mere visual effects spectacle are the voices of over 100 WWI veterans that narrate it. The humanity of those voices paired with the reality of the soldiers, marching, fighting, and goofing around like any modern solider might is a powerful reminder that they were indeed real men and boys, and not just silent faces lost to history.

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