One hundred years ago this month, the the United States military began preparing and processing some of their troops for the return trip back from their Great War service in Europe. And while there were some excellent Armistice commemorations which took place throughout the world on November 11, 2018, here in the United States, the significance of the holiday seem to register in the hearts and minds of everyday Americans.
Two of the World War I films of recent years to make an impact on the popular imagination was 2017’s Wonder Woman starring Gal Gadot and the outstanding 2018 animated family film Sgt. Stubby. Around the same time, Wisconsin filmmaker James Theres released the documentary film The Hello Girls, which was a much needed boost to the recognition of women’s US Army Signal Corps service in the Great War.
What I wasn’t expecting was a new documentary film They Shall Not Grow Old by acclaimed director Peter Jackson. Yes, that Peter Jackson. Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson. If I’d known he was such a World War I history buff, I would have paid more attention to his Twitter account. And did I mention he owns a bunch of other Great War artifacts, from uniforms to artillery, as well as one of the largest privately owned collection of World War I fighter planes? And I thought my collecting obsession of vintage teaware, suffrage memorabilia, and WWI military and wartime lapel buttons was crossing a line. Not that I’m complaining, I think I’ll send him a copy of my book in exchange for a ride in one of the biplanes.
The film, which includes film footage from the Imperial War Museum in London and archived BBC interviews from World War I vets, debuted here in America in December 2018 as a multi showing Fathom Event. Due to the limited release of the film, I didn’t get a chance to see it until January 21, 2019, when my friend Tina and I got tickets to an encore Fathom screening of the film.
You may have seen Great War footage previously, whether from a documentary series, museum exhibit, or a Youtube video. Cameras from the 1917-1919 time period were powered by a hand crank, and were shot with 13-17 frames per second as opposed to the 24 frames per second used in modern film making. This lack of frames causes jerky and sometime cartoonish movement by the subjects in the film. This is great for a Charlie Chaplin film, but not so great when working with real life wartime experiences. You can see a few examples of American World War I footage on the National Archives website.
Jackson and his film and technology team, added additional images frames, colorized the footage, and added a verbal soundtrack to a large portion of the film. The introduction and end were kept in their original colorless and slightly jerky condition, which was a great contrast to the enhanced footage displayed through the majority of the film.
I was blown away by how humanizing and rich the adjusted film footage looked on the big screen. Our viewing included a 3D option, which really added an amazing dimension to the viewer experience. The veterans interviews, which included comments from men of different military ranks, economic backgrounds, and ages at enlistment were the perfect narrative to the footage. While researching one of my own World War I writing projects, I took a few days to review the BBC archive footage of their Great War veterans interviews, which were filmed in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I’d never come across a similar large scale interview project for American Great War service members, and the BBC interviews really helped me understand the physical environment and psychological makeup of the men who survived their wartime experiences.
The way Jackson blends these gripping narratives with his enhanced film footage is amazing. It’s the type of project I would love to undertake myself on a much smaller local scale, and I would hope They Shall Not Grow Old will inspire more film makers to bring the neglected reels of Great War footage out of the archives and back to life for a modern audience. If you are interested in working with archival film footage and want to learn the history of early film making, you can use your Fountaindale Public Library card to access “The History of Film and Video Editing” on Lynda.com. This is just one of the many video editing and film making classes you can take online for free with your library card. And when you’re finished, you can join our Studio 300’s Indie Filmakers Day and share your project with the public.
If you get a chance to see They Shall Not Grow Old through a Fathom Event, I highly encourage you to do so. You may have to wait for the film to be released on DVD, so add it to your ‘must watch’ movie list. You won’t regret taking the time to watch this amazing documentary!
See You At The Library!
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