So I watched They Shall Not Grow Old last night…

Last night, I took in a rare (for me) Monday night motion picture, as the Peter Jackson-directed documentary They Shall Not Grow Old premiered for the first date of a two-night engagement.

And can I say this?  The film was totally impressive.  Peter Jackson took 100-year-old footage from World War I (the “Great War”) or “The War to End War” as it was known at the time) and restored it to a modern cinematic look.

Here’s a trailer for the film.

First thing – this was a Fathom Events cinema presentation, which meant that instead of seeing thirty minutes of advertising and fifteen minutes of movie trailers before the film starts, we received thirty minutes of still pictures about the documentary – a few advertisements about Fathom’s upcoming Metropolitan Opera shows and their big screen broadcasts of Turner Classic Movies’ heritage fare (wow, The Wizard of Oz is turning 80?) – we received an introduction from Peter Jackson himself, as he discussed the film.

Then the picture started.

The film’s narrators were actual World War I soldiers, all of whom were recorded in the 1960’s and 1970’s as part of previous archive projects.  It is their stories that are told here, and the film’s visuals match up with those stories – for example, how they were recruited (and volunteered) to fight the Germans, as they were inspired by wartime recruitment posters and a belief in British dominance over the Jerrys.

Then the soldiers arrived at the battlefield, and it’s at this point – 25 minutes into the film – that we move from grainy, scratched black and white film into carefully restored, color images of the soldiers’ life at the front.

At this point, when the film changed from black and white to color, I could hear audible gasps of surprise and wonder throughout the theater.  Heck, it must have been the same experience eighty years ago when Judy Garland walked out of the tornado-ravaged house into the Technicolor world of Oz.

But the soldiers did not fight on a Yellow Brick Road.  This film showed the many hardships and temptations, including unflinching glimpses of trench foot and trench warfare.

And then … battle scenes.  Cannons and artillery shells.  Explosions and bullets along no man’s land.  And a daring raid to try to take out the German gunners, and the bloody carnage suffered by those who did not survive the raid.

As the soldiers returned home from their tour of duty, the film returns to a black and white construct – and the soldiers discuss their own struggles on the homefront.  No available jobs for service people.  Difficulties sleeping in beds after years in the trenches.  And an understanding among telling their stories of war and survival would be difficult to convey to those who had not fought and who still had idyllic notions of war and conquest.

fAs an added bonus, we received a thirty-minute post-credits scene – take that, Marvel movies – as Peter Jackson returned to discuss the making of They Shall Not Grow Old, including the restoration of film footage, the difficulties in matching proper colors to uniforms (apparently, British khaki and German blue-grey uniforms aren’t simple color tunings), and his own desire to make this film to honor his grandfather, who fought in World War I.

Jackson finished the documentary by suggesting to the audience that they look back into their own personal history, and they may find that one of their forefathers could have fought in the Great War as well, and the connection to those stories – from parents or grandparents or great-grandparents – could be silenced over the passing of time.

Tremendous film and incredible restoration project.  If this film doesn’t get an Oscar for Best Documentary, I would be totally shocked.

Fathom Events has one more showing for They Shall Not Grow Old, on December 27.  I would definitely recommend you see this picture at your local theater.

Trust me on this.