They Shall Not Grow Old

Peter Jackson, most well known for his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels to film, has made a documentary on the First World War as part of the centenary commemorations currently ongoing across the world. They Shall Not Grow Old features fascinating footage from the conflict, including footage of soldiers laughing, eating, and just living their lives during one of the largest scale military conflicts in history.

Just shown in British cinemas these past few days, They Shall Not Grow Old features extensive footage from the Imperial War Museum in London, which alongside the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has co-produced the film. The footage is representative of the museum’s collections, which are vast: cameras had pervasive access to life behind and at the front lines during the war, with an estimated twenty million Britons seeing the War Office documentary The Battle of the Somme within six weeks of its release.

In and of itself, this documentary is cause for celebration among historians, further acquainting the public with the depth and complexity of the history of the Great War. Modern technology plays a major role in the production of They Shall Not Grow Old however. Jackson, speaking with British film critic Mark Kermode, discusses the film-making process in detail and the important technological enhancements that make this film unique: footage, originally captured in 10 or 18 frames per second footage, has been slowed down to look more natural; sound engineering has created ambient sound and recreated voices of people caught on camera; and most dramatically, all of the footage has been transformed from its original black and white into color.

The result is astonishing.

Colorization of black and white film is not a new thing. Adding color to black and white footage has been around almost as long as the black and white footage, though this practice was applied to entire films extremely rarely until techniques became more workable in the 1970s. More workable perhaps, but still extremely labor intensive. Continued development of computer technology has seen the process become more efficient, though as Jackson points out the finished product reflects the amount of work put into it. More impressive still perhaps is the ability of the technology to effectively compensate for the change in frame rate, avoiding a “jerky” or subtly unnatural experience for the audience. This in particular represents something new in the renovation of old footage.

Of course there is a lot going on here in which historians would have much interest: adding color, and in particular dubbing voice acting, immediately creates a separation between They Shall Not Grow Old and the reality of the events filmed. Then again, all production of history creates such separation. Every decision the historian makes, including the choice of a topic of study and the identification of key events, people or periods to cover, shapes that project from that point on. This awareness of the reality of our authorship in our work, I think, makes embracing this documentary with enthusiasm much easier. It is also clear that Jackson has been clear and focused in his goal of making this footage easily accessible to modern audiences, and for that he deserves immense credit. The end result is indeed fantastic. The study of war and remembering war is a complicated thing. We create distance through separation of time and an inability to relate directly to the experience of being a soldier in the trenches. Jackson has used technology to take away some of that distance, and it becomes easier to see these people as human beings. World War I is a fascinating object of historical study that perhaps receives less attention than it should. The centenary commemorations have produced a wonderful range of new historical products, particularly for the public, and They Shall Not Grow Old is both a wonderful achievement in its own right and evidence of immense promise in future historical study of the twentieth century.

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