A Transcendental Documentary

A World War Comes to Renewed Life Through Digital Revival

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WWI British infantrymen relax in a reconstructed image from “They Shall Not Grow Old.” Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

They Shall Not Grow Old
Digital technology can do both wonderful and nefarious things, but the new World War I documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old,’ uses it to create a thrilling reimaging of our past. It is a unique work, one which could prove a model for future looks at history (the film, beginning a theatrical run February 1, 2019, runs 99 minutes and is rated “R” for graphic visions of brutal war).

New Zealand director Peter Jackson, of “Lord of the Rings” fame, was approached four years ago by London’s Imperial War Museum (IWM) to craft something from more than 2,000 hours of film footage from the conflict. There were also 600 hours of BBC interviews with war veterans recorded in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Jackson’s task: to marry these eyewitness accounts with the IWM images to fashion, as he says, “an average man’s experience of what it was like to be an infantry soldier in WWI.”

As Jackson himself explains in a spoken introduction to the film, he made some important decisions up front. The story would be told only from the viewpoint of the British Army because that was where the bulk of the footage came from (no naval or air units). His version would eschew the details of dates and campaign locations but rather present one chronological account representing the war experience of most British soldiers, from enlistment to Armistice, using those voices (not identified on screen) from the BBC tapes.

The chronology begins with tight frame, black-and-white footage of the war’s beginnings, with testimony from eager recruits (many underage) anxious to join the fray. This is followed by a chronicle of the six weeks of training camp in all its detail and drudgery. The black-and-white footage continues as the troop boats cross the English Channel, and the young men land in besieged France, after which the film bursts into wide-screen color (and 3-D), and we are in the trenches with these men (and boys). It is a breakout as stunning as when “The Wizard of Oz” exploded with color once Dorothy landed in that enchanted land. Yet this land is hardly enchanted but all too palpably dismal, full of mud and dirt and bombs and corpses and…more mud. The monotony of trench warfare is intimately described, down to the intricacies of lice-picking, impromptu tea-making, latrine business, and the hunting of the ubiquitous rats. The narrative describes one long campaign, ending with hand-to-hand combat in the trenches. The latter sequence, lacking actual footage, is portrayed in a dizzying display of WWI stills taken from posters and magazines of the day. The finale also includes images of captured German soldiers, just as callow and bedraggled as their conquerors.

The film is enhanced by its astute use of sound effects, recalling the work of Ken Burns in his masterpiece, “The Civil War,” with the steady rhythms of wind, horses’ hooves, bombs, rifle fire, and trench sounds plus snatches of the men’s voices, sometimes matching the actual images in original accents. Perhaps most effective of all is the film’s digital enhancement. Jackson and Co., through painstaking trial and error, smooth out the action by stretching out the frames-per-second from the original hand-cranked camera’s imagery to a consistent 24 frames-per-second, thus converting jerky silent footage to an even flow on the screen. It’s a technique that should be used on any future silent movie material.

Jackson calls “They Shall Not Grow Old” his most personal film because his grandfather was in World War I, and the family library was full of books about it. In the introductory remarks mentioned above, Jackson noted: “It is a film for non-historians made by a non-historian.” Indubitably, because it is made by an artist.

Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman star in “The Favourite.” Photo credit: Yorgos Lanthimos; © 2018, 20th Century Fox Film Corporation.

Awards Season
The awards season is in full swing (the Golden Globes being awarded last month), and will culminate in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presentation on February 24th. Nominations for those awards will be announced after this newspaper goes to press on January 22nd. This gives your friendly reviewer a chance to offer some speculations on what Academy might anoint for 2018.

There are some pictures sure to be recognized. “Black Panther,” though released way last February, will be remembered for its lavish production values, its mammoth box office take, and its status as a social and psychological marker. It will garner some technical nominations and probably win in two or three categories. “The Favourite,” a cheeky-historical epic, will triumph with nominations for its three women protagonists: Olivia Colman (as Queen Anne of England), and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as palace intriguers. While the three actresses carry roughly equal time and weight in the film, the Academy will bow to silly convention and give only one a Best Actress nomination (as they did with Colman at the Globes), while the other two will be spuriously named “Supporting.” Best Actress could be one of the tighter categories, principally because of the certain nomination of Glenn Close for “The Wife,” an actress who has been nominated six times but has yet to win. I hope, also, that the young Elsie Fisher, star of the brilliant “Eighth Grade,” nabs a nomination.

Among actors, it’s safe to say that the two leads of the delightful “Green Book,” Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, will garner nominations, but, here again, there will be a specious division of the performers into “leading” and “supporting,” an arbitrary choice that violates the exquisite balance of this acting tandem. Christian Bale will also surely win a nomination for his reincarnation of Dick Cheney in “Vice,” but, in my view, the real prize should be for his makeup, not his performance.

I have one sure bet: Best Foreign Language Film. Put all your money on “Roma,” the masterpiece by Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, perhaps the greatest “home movie” ever made. This lovingly re-created vision of the director’s childhood home would be the first major award for the streaming behemoth Netflix. Cuarón, I also predict, will receive the statuette as Best Director, extending a recent run for Mexican filmmakers (four Oscars in the last five years). Two other handsome, thoughtful films (both in luminous black-and-white) from Central Europe, “Cold War” from Poland and “Never Look Away” from Germany, should also be nominated.

Among the indie films that are among my favorites this year but which are too obscure to receive nods, I would mention “The Death of Stalin,” a pitch-black satire that was released too early in the year, along with the superb documentary-like rodeo drama “The Rider,” and “Leave No Trace,” a moving father-daughter drama in a survivalist setting.

 

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.