There’s an urban legend that at the first screening of THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN AT LA CIOTAT STATION in 1896 in Paris, audience members screamed and fled the theater in terror because they thought the train would come bursting through the wall. This is mere myth, but the earliest viewers of motion pictures did respond with equal parts amusement and horror at the moving images before them. Humans, in particular, gave moviegoers the heebie-jeebies (to use a technical term) because of their ghost-like representations onscreen. They are simultaneously there and not there, real and artificial. With the advancements in filmmaking in the last 120-plus years — color, sound, 4K, etc. —  it’s hard to get a sense of what that would feel like. Not until THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD.

A new documentary from Peter Jackson, THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD has impeccably restored original footage from World War I to commemorate the end of the Great War. Jackson’s team pared down over 100 hours of footage and 600 hours of interviews to tell the story of a British soldier on the Western front. The heart of the story, from when this generic soldier ships out to the end of the war, is fully colorized, Foleyed, dubbed, and rendered in 3D. The result is nothing short of chilling.

From a technical standpoint, Jackon’s work is groundbreaking. But more importantly, the emotional impact is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Like the legendary viewers of THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN, when a smiling young soldier waved at the camera, I felt compelled to wave back.

What is it about the technical changes that have actually changed the way our brains respond emotionally? How can footage from the infancy of filmmaking create an entirely new response in the 21st-century moviegoer?

The Cinematic Physics of THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD

The disconnect that often comes with watching an old movie is twofold. For one, the film itself has been through a lot in the last century, so the footage is far from its best quality. Second, popular reference points for such films often influence the way we perceive archival footage.

To the first point, any restoration will aim to correct the wear-and-tear that film goes through over time. Things like scratching and jerkiness (film warps easily, making the image project inconsistently frame-by-frame) are fixed digitally to help the picture look more realistic. Upping the resolution also allows Jackson to zoom in and move around within a single shot, countering the stationary, wide shots typical of archival film. More than anything this makes the movie way more interesting to watch. The shots are more dynamic and keep the eye engaged.

Jackson and Co lightened and colorized previously unusable footage. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Let’s Talk About Specs

More noticeable, though, is the difference in frame rate. The standard frame rate has been 24 frames per second since the 1930s (notable exceptions are Jackson’s own HOBBIT films). But before that, there was no standard. The cameras used to film WWI were cranked by hand, so even the same reel could be filmed at different frame rates, usually between 12 and 17 frames per second.

This smaller rate means that the image is less smooth and moves much faster than in real life. There is a lack of realism here, of course, but the modern viewer’s mind connects them to popular references. Most popular is probably Charlie Chaplin movies. No matter the actual content on the screen, the speed walking, the frenetic waving, the Model Ts taking off like stock cars always read as slapstick because that’s what we’re used to it being. It feels like fiction even when it’s not. By adjusting the frame rate of the original footage, THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD brings the footage back into the physical world that we understand as “real.”

THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD and the Sound of Silence

That Chaplin Effect extends to sound. The only records we have of the time lack sound, so our brains disassociate sounds from the real world, too. At most, it would have some jaunty piano music and title cards to explain the wild gesturing. But alas, sound has existed for all of time. When we see people’s lips move on the screen, they were actually saying something. When a cannon fires, it makes a very loud “boom.” Even mud squishes when you step in it and a backpack rustles when you put it on.

All those noises were recreated for THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD. Every time someone appears to say something, professional lip readers deciphered the movements into dialogue, which actors recited in time with the film. A Foley artist recreated every little sound that someone makes. The ambient noises actually block out distractions because they are what we expect to hear. The dialogue, too, gives a sense of humanity to the soldiers, especially since so many of them joke or say, “Hi, Mom,” to the camera.

The speech the officer gives was discovered in the Imperial War Museum’s archives thanks to lipreaders on THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Still, there is an eerieness that comes with the new sound. What’s interesting is that this was often the case with early sound films, which had lower quality sound that often didn’t line up with the picture. Even now, with all the resources of the last century, there remains that eerie quality of a voice without a source. That dissonance is never quite fixable but the emotional impact remains. That ghostly or dreamlike quality kind of works for this setting. It feels like a distant memory, like maybe I was there in another life.

Tricking the Eye

Like with sound, sometimes we forget that people in the past lived in color and in 3D just as we do. If realism is your goal, then it would only make sense that these elements are a must. But sometimes a bad colorization or 3D rendering makes a film feel less realistic. The human brain can identify with scary precision whether or not something looks right, even if we can’t always put it into words.

To me, most 3D movies fall into this category. (I am also of the unfortunate camp that gets headaches and motion sickness from 3D, so I’m biased.) If the 3D doesn’t add something to the existing images, then it only takes away from the experience. Luckily, THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD does it right. Occasionally it falls into that pop-up book territory, but on the whole, it adds a necessary sense of space to the originally flat image. People stand out in relief from their surroundings, explosions encroach upon your space, and trenches feel claustrophobic.

Live and in Color

Likewise, a bad colorization can feel like a very expensive and time-consuming coloring book. But THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD is clearly done with painstaking detail. In the post-credits mini-documentary (which you must stay for if you decide to see the film) Jackson shows off his extensive collection of WWI memorabilia that served as references for the film’s coloring. Every insignia, button, and blade of grass has been handled with equal care.

they shall not grow old
According to Wikipedia, the only inaccuracy is in the color of the tanks. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The sense of realism creates a baseline to buy into what we are seeing. But it becomes gutwrenching when it comes to one thing: blood. The vivid red that paints the film’s battle sequence challenges the desensitization we all have to these kinds of images. Not to be crass but it’s easy to separate ourselves from a grainy, black-and-white photo of a dead body. But when that body is drenched in blood or turning blue-gray as it lies in the mud or is hardly recognizable from the black-brown-red wounds covering its skin… that’s another thing entirely. That is suddenly a fellow human being that has been forced into a gruesome death. That one extra sense can trigger a completely different response.

War, What is it Good For?

All of these technical achievements would be nothing without a good story behind them. In developing the project, the Imperial War Museum asked that no additional modern footage be used. So, Jackson decided to use only the original film, interviews, and other archival materials to create an immersive experience of a soldier. With all references to dates, names, and specific incidences removed, the story becomes that of any British soldier in WWI. Jackson refers to the movie as being made by a non-historian for non-historians; it isn’t meant to be a detailed history of the war. It’s meant to be a tribute to the real people who fought, suffered, and died.

Absolutely Nothing

Jackson was careful not to impose his own point of view, but that doesn’t mean that the doc ideologically neutral. Often, these kinds of films end up being pro-war in their glorification of suffering and the canonization of casualties. But THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD does the opposite. All of the interviewees have a similar perspective on their experiences: war is, ultimately, useless. There is no martyrdom or glamorized suffering or even a hero’s welcome when they return home. War is, as they say, hell.

they shall not grow old
I am here because of you. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

In a segment about German prisoners of war, all of the voiceovers note that they didn’t see a difference between the opposing soldiers and themselves. There was no enmity or prejudice. The political machinations that sent them to the frontlines had no bearing. They were just fellow human beings who had seen the same horrors as themselves. They had lost all sense of what they were fighting for because, no matter what it was, it wasn’t worth it.

Ultimately, that is the position the audience finds itself in as well. We have now lived (by proxy) the same experience that the soldier has. But at the same time, when a soldier looks back at the camera, at you, in full color, dimension, and definition, there is a certain indictment of the viewer. You did this to me, you can almost hear him thinking. Even a hundred years ago that was true. The people viewing that footage were probably sitting in a movie theater just like us watching a newsreel before the latest Mary Pickford feature.

“They Shall Not Grow Old… We Will Remember Them”

Hopefully, with movies like THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD, we can start to bring those faces back to life, to a new kind of life for a new age. It’s not enough to just say “never forget” anymore. We all know about World War I, and any war for that matter, on a cognitive level. We know that the trenches were full of misery and disease. We know that crossing no man’s land was a death sentence. We know that some 10 million soldiers died in those four years.

But in our heart of hearts, we can never really know what that means. When you add in each sense — sight, then sound, then the tactility of 3D — that cognitive knowledge reaches deeper into your mind and soul. Each sense adds a level of truth to what you already know to be true. It is when it gets to that level that “never forget” turns to you can never forget. The nameless and the voiceless live on forever in us if we have courage enough to give them the honor they deserve.

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