Review: Peter Jackson Makes The Old New With ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’

Peter Jackson’s latest project and newest display of his technical prowess is not what the commoner would expect. The director of The Lord of the Ringsand The Hobbittrilogies is not helming a big budget blockbuster or even a traditional narrative film. Rather, he's going smaller: a restoration documentary about the soldiers of WWI. They Shall Not Grow Oldis the result of four years of work by Jackson and crew. What was originally supposed to be a commissioned work for the Imperial War Museums  is now getting a wide release after sold out Fathom events. Unlike other documentaries, the film positions it self as an achievement of archival work as it takes decades old footage and revitalizes it, giving it an entirely new and modern look thanks to new technological advancements. 

In fact, the biggest selling point of the film is the restoration itself. Jackson, a man of technological development and implementation (both goodand bad), collected troves of archival footage, and after playing with it for three months, turned the compilation into a full blow redux. The old film stock goes through your classic restoration — cleaned, 4k scanned, digitized —, but more strikingly is how the team used advancements in technology to breath new life into the film. The before and after of the restoration is remarkable, and it should be seen as a new touch stone for restoration. It's so good that one would hope the same process could be applied to other archives so that they too may see the benefits exhibited here.


However, there is also an aspect of manipulation. The idea of restoration is to bring film back to its original state and make it as close to the original version that was captured, but here Jackson is adding elements. The film is now colorized, the motion has been smoothed to look more natural, and the subjects have been given voice over performances. It goes beyond the usual methods of restoration, and whether or not that conflicts with the principle of historical accuracy, I have to say, it’s nothing short of impressive. I’d imagine there are multiple layers and iterations of the restoration on hard drives with varying degrees of manipulation, so I can’t get too upset at the fact Jackson had creative inputs on this particular project. Somewhere there is a version that does restoration in the traditional sense, we just haven't seen it.

They Shall Not Grow Olddistances itself from historical details in order to tell the story of the men who were apart of the battle. The film doesn’t specify specific battles, locations, or dates, but rather, it deals in personal testimonies. Pulling from over 600 hours of oral history, the film strings together first hand accounts of soldiers who experienced the war. There is a sense of collective grouping that comes with this narration; Jackson sequences individual sentences from multiple individuals and overlays them with the restored footage. There are no monologs or extended narration by any one individual, and the faces of the speaking veterans are never even shown. The result is a sense that the soldiers are a singular body that experienced the war together. This is not about a particular unit or company, but rather the collective ‘they’ that the title suggests, the entire mass of soldiers that served. By the end of the film, you come to an understanding about the human aspects of war and the impacts it has on people, something often lost in the discussion of it all.

The film evokes anthropological notions of why humankind goes to war and the repercussions it has on those fighting. It’s a theme that has been addressed several times before, but made fresh with the restoration and, more importantly, the structural approach Jackson takes makes the war more human than historical.