They Shall Not Grow Old is a truly fascinating cinematic document, the sort of thing that shows the power, and the limitations, of the artform to transport audiences through space and time. Peter Jackson’s documentary about World War I is a minor miracle: a rather simple and straightforward story told in such a fantastically original way that many viewers will feel dispatched to the past.
Jackson relates the action on the western front in the usual way: Vintage film footage is combined with interviews conducted by the BBC of WWI vets when they were in their fifties and sixties. He combines film, still photography, and artistic representations (drawings, paintings, etc.) of combat on the front to tell the story. It’s the sort of thing you might see in any documentary about action that took place more than a century ago.
But the presentation of all this material is something else entirely. At first, it’s a rather standard newsreel-style staging: we see a 4:3 box with black bars on all four sides taking up most of the screen’s space. In addition to voiceovers from men describing signing up for battle and going off to boot camp, we hear the sound of a projector whirring in the background, ticking away, mimicking the flicker of film spinning through sprockets.
I watched They Shall Not Grow Old in 3D, and the effect was a bit like looking through a windowpane. The image was recessed a little, set off behind the black bars. The hint of depth was pleasingly subtle, like looking at a piece of art in a shadowbox, but not really worth the trouble of wearing the glasses.
Moments later, however, the trouble became well worth it. Once our heroes joined the front, the scope of the film expanded. Literally, in one sense, with the aspect ratio moving from a boxy 4:3 to a more expansive 16:9, living color consuming the artificial frame imposed on the screen. As the picture stretches in width and height, the images shift from gray to color and a full 3D effect kicks in. The projector noise fades away and drops out altogether. It calls to mind that moment in C.S. Lewis’s novel, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when the Pevensie kids are pulled out of a British house and into a painting—and the land of Narnia. You feel as if you’ve been sucked into the screen, in a way.
As transporting as the effect is, you can’t help but notice the limits of the technology. Faces sometimes blur, the computer-powered restoration of the ancient film unable to seamlessly generate motion. The 3D effect is occasionally too noticeable, the film screen occasionally feeling like an awkwardly die cut wood carving. I found myself wondering if the chit chat captured on film—not the voiceovers, but actual interactions between people filmed 100 years ago—was dubbed by modern voice actors, given the state of technology when the footage was shot.
These are minor complaints, however. The effect truly is magical, and one must credit Peter Jackson, best known for his epic films about Middle Earth, for preserving and presenting this remarkable piece of film history in a way that will resonate with modern audiences far better than a simple black and white presentation.