Having sold out at event screenings since December, “They Shall Not Grow Old,” which opens for a full run this week, is poised to become the only blockbuster this year that was filmed from 1914 to 1918, on location on the Western Front. Commissioned to make a movie for the centennial of the Armistice, using original footage, Peter Jackson has taken a mass of World War I archival clips from Britain’s Imperial War Museum and fashioned it into a brisk, absorbing and moving experience.
How he has done this is simultaneously novel and destined to earn the justifiable quibbling of purists. Although the film is book ended by black-and-white footage of men going off to war and then returning home, the battlefield sequences have been substantially doctored, with the ostensible goal of making them more immersive and appealing to modern audiences. Given how few films from the 1910s are showing in multiplexes, the intent is at least arguably noble, although you wonder how Jackson would feel about his “Lord of the Rings” being tinkered with 100 years after its making.
Jackson has adjusted the frame rates (the speed at which a film is projected, which wasn’t standardized until the sound era); added color in ways said to comport with the actual hues of uniforms and landscapes; given the film a 3-D conversion that can be seen in select theaters; and dubbed in voices for the soldiers, with the aid of forensic lip readers employed to figure out what they were saying.
Most notably, he has added voice-over from real veterans who fought with the British, culled from hundreds of hours of audio interviews. Their testimonies have been smoothly interwoven and linked with appropriate footage. As you listen to the voices in concert, patterns emerge. We hear from multiple men too young to serve who lied about their ages to enlist. For many, soldiering became a job and the only world they knew. We learn of the camaraderie that formed in the trenches, and of the sense that the men had of being shunned and misunderstood after the war.
The sound effects — gunfire, shelling, falling debris — are the movie’s best addition, helping to conjure the sensation of continuous bombardment, day and night. The sonic accompaniment isn’t limited to artillery. We hear squeaks for the rats who invaded the trenches and fed on human flesh. You have to wonder if Jackson popped actual louse eggs to get just the right crackling sound.
The visual alterations are another matter. Your mileage may vary, but to me, the faces in the black-and-white segments looked more detailed, more “real” than the faces in the color segments. The tweaks have made skin look porcelain-smooth; cheeks appear eerily stubble-free, even if these men were young and diligent about shaving. Color techniques did exist in movies during World War I, and what is here looks nothing like them.
These are the qualms of a cinephile, and most viewers listening to such gripping recollections — of seeing a living man with his lung hanging out or of how the deceased came to be regarded as “no trouble, medically” — will probably be too engaged to mind. Even so, it’s tough to escape the sense that Jackson has brought history to life in the sense that Dr. Frankenstein brought things to life, having his way with the dead.