The film, which uses material from the BBC and Imperial War Museum archives, was made for the BBC and originally intended as a 30-minute piece, but grew from the wealth of material and ultimately had such a profound effect that Warner Bros. is releasing it in very-limited release theatrically, And by "very limited" I mean there are two days scheduled.
I say this because I saw it yesterday, and that means there's only one other day left to see it for certain, and you will do yourself a great disservice by missing it. Yes, it's that tremendous.
(By the way, what I wrote in an an earlier version of this article is that I suspected that the studio was hoping for an Oscar nomination -- and win -- but it turns out that since this was never originally intended as a theatrical film, Warner Bros. missed the October 1 deadline for submissions and so the film is ineligible. However, the box office, even for such a profoundly-limited presentation, has been massive and so discussions are underway for a possible, full theatrical release.)
I'll keep this description reasonably short because of a bonus that goes along with the documentary. I'll dive in a bit more when getting around to that. But as for the documentary itself, what makes it stand out so much is how Jackson physically crafted it. Using the latest technology, he and his team restored the footage to a quality so remarkably pristine that it almost looks like modern-day footage. Additionally, they manipulated the speed of the film so it doesn't look the way old silent movies generally do, sped-up and jerky, but instead is all fully natural. They colorized it using the highest quality efforts so, although the process is often controversial, here is completely justified and all looks fresh and lifelike. Perhaps most fascinatingly, they brought in expert lip-readers to determine what soldiers are saying in the footage, and then dubbed the voices to add a sense of realism to the material. They also converted the old material to 3D in a way that doesn't get in the way with anything splashy, but brings subtle depth to the landscape so that at times you almost feel you are there on the battlefields. And much more. And making it all the more touching is that there are no historians or WWI experts narrating -- instead, all the narration is from archival interviews that soldiers did 40-50 years later.
It's really quite remarkable.
Which brings us to the bonus. Following the 90-minute documentary, there is another half-hour film that runs afterwards with Peter Jackson explaining and showing all the amazing work that they put into crafting the film and bringing everything to life. In some ways, it's surprsingly almost as moving at times as the documentary itself. And if They Shall Not Grow Old does get a wider theatrical release at some point, I wouldn't think it would be with this special half-hour featurette. It seems like that was solely for this limited theatrical release. (Or the DVD, assuming one gets released.)
Here's an example of the level of detail and effort the filmmakers went to. When they dubbed the soldiers, they team tracked down which divisions the men were in, and they found actors who spoke in that same dialect, to make it authentic. Also, they often found footage that all other WWI documentaries most-certainly ignored because the footage had degraded, or was deeply underexposed or overexposed and therefore unusable -- but they were able to restore it, and much of what they ended up with was a treasure.
Jackson also explains the decision to colorize the footage. He said that the focus of the movie was on the foot soldiers and their experience, how they saw the war. And they saw the war in color. He notes, too, that had color been available at the time, there's little doubt that the original filmmakers would have used it. He explains, too, that the quality of colorization depends in large part on the time spent on the process, and so they devoted a great deal of time getting it to look right and natural.
One of the more fascinating things of the featurette has nothing to do with the war, but the filmmaker himself. It turns out that Peter Jackson wasn't approached merely because of his acclaim as a director, but rather both that and because he is a true, massive aficionado of World War I. When talking about the impossibility of getting some footage for the movie of hand-to-hand combat, Jackson says he remembered that he had a few copies of old war magazines he'd collected as a kid that had original drawings from the time which might be useful -- and when he went to check, he found out that he didn't still have a few copies, but several hundred. Also, when they did the colorizing of all the old uniforms of the many divisions, their efforts were made significantly easier because...Jackson had his own collection of old World War I uniforms, which got a growing chuckle from the audience. But what got the biggest laugh is when Jackson (who clearly found it a bit bizarre himself) said that they wanted the sound of the artillery movement and explosions to be authentic and so -- yes -- in a bemused voice said, "I had my own collection of WWI artillery...as one does." And so the featurette shows them rolling out Jackson's own canons and other artillery out to fields to be properly operated.
Both of these films are showing one more time, for certain. That will be on December 27. If this is even of remote interest to you, try to see it. It's very special. Here is the page where you can enter your zip cod and see where it's screening in your area. Just click this link.
And here's a very brief trailer, which I posted before. It doesn't begin to do the documentary anything close to justice -- but -- it absolutely gives you a touch of an idea of how unique this is.