Peter Jackson's new World War I documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, is a remarkable feat of wizardry. It brings a tactile sensation to a war that unfolded so long ago that no veterans remain alive. It's also a heroic feat of film restoration, a reminder of the magic that can be conjured with archival footage, provided the right magician is at the helm.
That would be Jackson, one of the highest grossing filmmakers of all time, who spent the last four years bringing his labor of love to life.
"There aren't people alive who fought in the war, but there are people alive who are sons and daughters of those who fought in the war," Jackson says by phone from his New Zealand home. "I hope that the generations of today will see the movie and be inspired to ask their family what happened to their lives during the war."
This is no sweeping epic of the Great War, which claimed more than 16 million lives. If you're seeking that, the 2017 PBS series The Great War is a great place to start. Jackson's film, which opens Feb. 1 after a mini-run via Fathom Events, is a more intimate affair, with a tight focus on the everyday lives of British troops fighting for their lives in trenches and fields. We see how they fought, how they played, how they ate, how they relieved themselves, how they lived, how they died.
It all started when the Imperial War Museum in London approached Jackson with a proposition: We give you access to 100 hours of scratched-up World War I documentary footage, you restore it and make your own original film from the material.
He also had 600 audio hours of veterans at his disposal. For scenes that feature soldiers talking, he used forensic lip readers to decipher the words and had actors speak the parts. He had each frame of film hand-colored and 3D digitized.
The results are unlike anything you've seen before. You're listening to World War I vets narrate the details of what it was like to be there, and seeing those details, as they were lived, in crisp, color images.
Jackson has a personal stake in the material: His grandfather fought in the war, and though he died well before Jackson was born, the filmmaker grew up in a house full of World War I books and stories from his dad, Bill. "He was more interested in the first World War than the second," Jackson says of his dad. "He would tell me stories his father used to tell him when he was young."
The stories stayed with him as he put together the blockbuster Lord of the Rings movies. So when the Imperial War Museum offered the opportunity to shape its goldmine of footage, he jumped at the chance.
Jackson has earned his reputation as a wizard of cinema through projects small (Dead Alive, Heavenly Creatures) and big (The Lord of the Rings, King Kong). They Shall Not Grow Old will go down as one of his finest magic tricks. It reflects the intensity of his focus and his passion for film restoration, a passion he shares with other towering directors like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.
His goal is to let you touch the distant past in the here and now.
"There are archives around the world that are sitting on historical footage — not necessarily war footage — from the '10s and the '20s," he says. "I hope they realize you can now restore it to something that you can connect with on a human level and make them feel real. Because they were real."
Chris Vognar is a contributing writer and former culture critic for The Dallas Morning News.