Movie Review: 'They Shall Not Grow Old'

Originally published on January 11, 2019 7:47 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Our modern memory of World War I is in black and white. The only moving images we have are these scratchy, silent, black-and-white newsreels. One hundred years after the armistice, a new documentary is now giving those images a new dimension and a voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD")

UNIDENTIFIED VETERAN #1: I was 16 years old. And my father allowed me to go.

UNIDENTIFIED VETERAN #2: I was - just turned 17 at the time.

UNIDENTIFIED VETERAN #3: I was 16.

UNIDENTIFIED VETERAN #4: And I was 15 years.

UNIDENTIFIED VETERAN #5: I gave every part of my youth to do a job.

MARTIN: "They Shall Not Grow Old" tells the story of the young men who fought in World War I in color and with sound. I talked with LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan about this remarkable project.

KENNETH TURAN: Well, this film is really amazing. It's an overused word, but it's really true. It's taken this old footage, brought these people back to life. It's almost kind of like reincarnation.

MARTIN: It's fascinating because when my producer was telling me about this, he's, like, check out this trailer. They've put footage - they've made it color. And I thought to myself, big deal. That doesn't sound very interesting.

TURAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: And when you watch it, it is amazing how just that change - just changing into color - it really does give life to this experience in a totally new way.

TURAN: Well, it's much more than the color. The key thing that was done was the frames per second. Sound film is 24 frames per second. The reason silent film seems jerky is that it's hand cranked, sometimes 14, 15 frames per second. They used a computer to recreate missing frames, duplicate frames. And so it now plays at 24 frames a second. It plays the way we're used to seeing film play. So these people, instead of being kind of herky-jerky, they are actually walking and talking just like us.

MARTIN: The talking, too, is crazy. How did they remaster the audio?

TURAN: They did two things. In the silent footage, people talk to the camera. They used lip readers to figure out what they were saying. And they hired local actors to have exactly the same accent as the people in the film. But more than that, the BBC has 600 hours of interviews with World War I veterans. And they brought that audio up to speed. And so everything sounds contemporary. Everything sounds completely real.

MARTIN: And this is like a revelation. We should note big names are attached to this - in particular, Academy Award winner Peter Jackson produced and directed this.

TURAN: Yes. Peter Jackson, who is known for "The Lord Of The Rings" films and "The Hobbit" films - he turns out to be an enormous World War I buff. His grandfather was a World War I veteran. And the Imperial War Museum, knowing this, approached him to do a film for the hundredth anniversary of the armistice. And he leapt at the chance. And, you know, he knows all about this kind of stuff. He knows about special effects. He's really used the same technology that kind of brings superhero films to life to make this stuff come to life.

MARTIN: Why do you think this film works in 2019? I mean, do audiences want to think about World War I?

TURAN: Well, you know, what I have found - audiences - we are in wars now. We have just come out of wars. We have a lot of veterans in our population, people who care about war, who experienced war. They connect to this film. They see the men. Even though it's 100 years ago, they say, that's someone like me. And that's really a powerful thing.

MARTIN: Kenneth Turan reviews movies here at MORNING EDITION and for the Los Angeles Times. We were talking about the new documentary "They Shall Not Grow Old." Kenny, thanks so much.

TURAN: Oh, thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.