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The Documentary Masterpiece that is Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old

By now you must have heard about Peter Jackson’s “controversial” restoration of 100-year-old 35mm newsreel footage from WWI, taken from the archive of London’s Imperial War Museum. A splendid profile by Mekado Murphy occupied #1 in the New York Times Trending section for several days after it appeared Dec. 16, joined by coverage by Chris O’Falt in IndieWire and David Sims in The Atlantic.

Unfortunately, in a highly unusual release pattern, distributor Warner Bros. Pictures is screening this groundbreaking film on two dates only: Dec. 17 and Dec. 27 at select theaters across the U.S. (check local listings if you read this in time).

This is regrettable, because They Shall Not Grow Old is a landmark film, at once a technological achievement, a tour de force of cinematic history-telling, and a shot over the historiographic bow in terms of its methods. Film archivists, those of a strict preservationist bent, are unlikely to be sympathetic. Neither will their purist counterparts in cinematography, if a recent flare-up on the international listserve, Cinematography Mailing List, is any indication. A handful of professional cinematographers in full-throated condemnation of Jackson’s efforts (none of whom had yet seen the film) declared: Why not also colorize Dr. Strangelove, The Third Man, and The Best Years of Our Lives?

For the rest of us (myself included, a professional cinematographer), shopworn adjectives like breathtaking, heartbreaking, and shocking actually hit the mark, precisely because of Jackson’s revelatory new methods.

In a nutshell, Jackson took century-old 35mm in whatever form it existed and not only digitized it to 4K, but went the extra mile, using costly state-of-the-art digital technology at his disposal to breathe life into the footage: repair physical breaks and damage, remove graininess built up over many generations of copying, tweak motion to appear natural and buttery smooth at today’s 24 frames/second, make audible what soldiers are actually saying on camera by use of forensic lip-readers and voice actors, and record the characteristic bolt-action sound of a Lee-Enfield, the crack of a Howitzer muzzle fire, nearby bursts from a round of mortar shells, clanging tank treads, rattling Model T ambulances, and screaming horse teams to build a convincingly unsettling soundscape. As Jackson has remarked, “It wasn’t a silent war, it was a war of sound.”

Most notably, Jackson has employed an army of digital artists to colorize—not in the vulgar, Ted Turner sense (who once endeavored to colorize Citizen Kane)—but in an earnest attempt to meticulously restore color that was never recorded, because the technology of the time was not sufficiently advanced.  This entailed building collections of WWI military uniforms and gear for direct color reference, travelling to location in France and Belgium to record precise colors of the countryside and built environment, and enlisting the color advice of historians and military experts.

With these 100-year-old moving images scanned into hi-res digital space, cleaned and repaired, Jackson was free to venture into the original 4:3 frame, to pan or tilt as desired, and finally, through the latest stereo conversion techniques, create convincing if nightmarish 3D moving images of WWI trench warfare—in 2.39 Scope, no less. Which is why you MUST see They Shall Not Grow Old on a 2.39 screen in a 3D-equipped theater, projected in 3D as intended, surrounded by the film’s extraordinary sound effects. I have seen it also in 2D, and can report that it is indeed diminished. (WWI has always existed in 3D! Handheld stereoscopes popular in the 19th century proved a sensational means of viewing “you are there” images of WWI military preparations and trench warfare on both sides, with over twenty American, British, Australian, French, and German companies vying to supply thousands of stereogram views to their clamoring publics. )

The first 25 minutes of They Shall Not Grow Old’s 100-minute running time is given over to unrestored B&W archival footage displayed in a conventional 4:3 frame (rounded corners), nested in the middle of the 2.39 frame—extreme pillar-boxing, if you will.

In voiceover, a string of unidentified individuals recall, in first person, what it was like to sign up at 15 or 16 years of age (lying about your age), be given one uniform for the entire war and boots that didn’t fit, adjust to army rations, learn to shoot, bayonet, and march in formation. These first-person recollections “telling a common story,” as Jackson put it, were culled from oral history recordings of 120 WWI soldiers made in the 1960s, when the men would have been in their 60s and still vital.

Previous WWI memoirs like Good-Bye to All That and Testament of Youth recounted the horrors of the War through the refined sensibility and class perspective of the single, highly literate individual. Jackson takes broader aim. Not identifying individual voices and intercutting them to form a continuous narration confers the authenticity of the personal, yet transcends the particular story of any one individual to achieve a collective story-telling rooted in shared experience and emotion. (I was a producer and technical director of For All Mankind, the Oscar-nominated 1989 film about the Apollo moon landings, and we did the same thing, editing picture from existing footage and assembling a collective voiceover narration from audio interviews of the Apollo astronauts without identifying the speakers.)

The first 25 minutes also features colorful British war posters from that time, with B&W motion picture images transparently superimposed over select portions of propagandistic graphic design, forming a clever dialectic with filmed reality. At the 25-minute mark, as naive young recruits land in Belgium and France to discover wrecked towns and countrysides—a narrator says he and his buddies suddenly realize “it was deadly warfare,” i.e., Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore—the 4:3 frame widens to full 2.39 Scope with color, 3D, and rich sound to depict a lengthy, medium tracking shot of troops trudging through a river of mud. Hapless streams of men and wagons flowing to the right, against a far column marching in the opposite direction. Flat-out cinematic. There were gasps at the screening I attended.

On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the film was preceded by a video introduction by Jackson, speaking directly into the camera and adroitly addressing the many technical challenges and imperatives of his all-in approach to documentary-making. Jackson is endlessly articulate on the subject, and he beautifully sets up the screening to follow. I hope his video foreword is included when you have a chance to properly view They Shall Not Grow Old in 3D on the big screen. Meantime, edifying clips of Jackson discussing the making of the film can be seen here and here.

Incidentally, Jackson’s interest in WWI is longstanding; Jackson dedicated the film to his grandfather, who fought in and survived the war. When the Imperial War Museum sought a filmmaker to create a commemorative film exploiting the Museum’s substantial archive, Jackson came to mind easily—although the technical prowess he brought to this three-year project surely transcended its initial scope. Other WWI commemorative media projects have been also underway this year—2018 is the centennial of WWI’s end—including several at the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab, which has been digitizing U.S. Army Signal Corps films. (We entered the war late, April 6, 1917, after three years of gassing, bombardment, entrenchment, aerial dogfights, and local destruction across France and Belgium. In total the U.S. spent 19 months fighting WWI.)

Jackson’s enhancement of 100-year-old newsreel footage places him squarely at one extreme of the archival debate as to whether or not vintage film footage must be handled as sacrosanct, never to be altered or “improved” in the process of preservation or restoration.

To which, in league with Jackson, I say rubbish.

Beyond framing a shot or choosing an angle, there were few creative choices made by WWI newsreel cameramen (all men at that time), safe behind the front lines as they loaded magazines of anti-static X-back 35mm B&W negative into an ungainly mahogany Moy & Bastie, top-heavy Pathé Professionale, boxy Debrie Parvo, or new-fangled Akeley “pancake.” These cine cameras could accommodate but a single lens, typically 50mm (2-inch) f/3.5, sometimes 3-inch, uncoated of course (anti-reflection coatings were 25 years in the future). They weren’t reflex; you had to know how to aim them, perhaps with a guide or range finder, and how to obtain fine focus on the film itself. All were hand-cranked at a nominal 16 frames/second. If you didn’t crank evenly, exposure would vary.

And they were loud. Open the crank side of the large wooden box that is a British Moy & Bastie and inside you’ll find a bicycle chain transmitting the crank’s torque to an intermittant pull-down. They were ungainly and unbalanced too, demanding a substantial wooden tripod. (Handheld ergonomics lay in the future.) If the tripod weren’t solid as a rock, the cranking might well rock the camera.

These men were often former still photographers or newspaper journalists pressed into military service to get newsreel shots on a list they were handed. Close-ups and “the general view” were stipulated. Near the front lines, large cumbersome cameras on heavy tripods provided easy target practice for snipers. Shots like close-ups of an infantry squad charging over the top into no-man’s land toward enemy machine-gun fire would be suicide for a cameraman with his tripod, cranking away above the trench. Did I mention that telephotos lenses scarcely existed? (Hard to frame without reflex viewing or an accurate range finder.) With a 50mm lens, you had to get close to action to film it. No surprise, then, that staged reenactments of battlefield close-ups became the rule.

You didn’t have the convenience of a light meter (also not invented yet), nor did you create fancy Cinexes (strips with an exposure wedge to test-develop for best scene contrast), as was the practice in nascent Hollywood. Instead you guessed exposure by eye and the seat of your pants. You handed the exposed magazine containing film to a messenger. If you were an American, your Akeley magazine was sent to the Signal Corps Photographic Laboratory in the U.S. for processing; or after July, 1917, to a wartime film lab first set up in Paris, later Vincennes. Hopefully you got your magazines returned. You never saw your dailies or knew how your footage was used.

Being the first war in which new media technologies—cinema, radio—might impact public sentiment (previously the domain of newspapers), governments were at first wary of newsreels. The conservative German and British militaries expected to run their wars free of civilian interference. The British War Office at first banned correspondents and cameras at the front. One exception was D. W. Griffith, whom the British permitted to film in the trenches in France in 1917 while making, at their behest, his anti-German melodrama, Hearts of the World (scarcely two years after staging massive Civil War battle scenes in Birth of a Nation). Their goal was to galvanize American opinion, still largely isolationist, against “the Hun.”

At the outset of the War, the French government had allowed newsreel cameramen to film major events like the arrival of the British Expeditionary Force and retreat of the Belgian Army, but as cinema screens filled with streams of refugees and mounting battlefield casualties, igniting concerns over civilian morale, the French government reacted, arresting journalists including cameramen. Fortunately by the second year of the war, savvier heads prevailed, and the French Army formed its own photographic and cinematographic units (the better to control the story). Similarly, when the U.S entered the war in 1917, the U.S. Army Signal Corps acquired Akeley pancake cameras and instructed their cameramen on how to use them to chronicle the exploits of the American Expeditionary Forces. But no matter which side you were on, all WWI newsreel footage was produced under the thumb of strict censorship.

Regarding the development of nonfiction cinema, WWI can be seen as an incubator of what was to become, in a few short years, both ethnographic documentary à la Flaherty and Grierson and state propaganda à la Goebbels and Riefenstahl.

But the bottom line is that WWI cameramen were not artists, and what they produced was not art, the result of conscious artistic choice. Beyond the act of selecting a subject, a moment, a framing, a focus, perhaps panning the camera—journalistic decisions, all—no expression of artistic intent or exploration of the medium’s intrinsic qualities is found in the work of WWI cameramen.

It’s hardly their fault. Motion pictures were not yet thought to be an art form. (Photography, just barely.) Color in motion pictures didn’t exist beyond tinting and toning. Sync sound didn’t exist at all. Black & white was a given, not a prerogative or an aesthetic. In shooting newsreels, there were no lighting, design, art, costume, or makeup decisions relative to the use of black & white—which, by the way, during WWI was orthochromatic (not panchromatic), requiring special filters to best translate color to monochrome and reduce tonal distortion. As mentioned, newsreel cameras were bulky and inflexible. Lenses were limiting.

What cameraperson, then or now, risking their life on a treacherous battlefield to capture history in the making would forgo color and sound and dimensionality if these were possible?

Jackson has simply returned these traces of verisimilitude to 100-year-old recorded images, denied to them by the technological constraints of their day. Despite many decades of obvious duping, resolution loss, and grain build-up, his restoration touches us deeply. If only the nitrate camera original negatives existed!

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