‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ review: Peter Jackson crafts an epic World War 1 documentary

Henry will editThey Shall Not Grow Old

Documentary directed by Peter Jackson

Rated R

Playing on Dec. 17 and 27. Go to fathomevents.com for schedules, tickets and times. 

Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy summoned imaginary worlds to the screen, but his latest, “They Shall Not Grow Old,” is just as innovative a trick. This World War I documentary is more of an audio/visual collage, using modern effects to update old footage into a “You Are There” narrative. It’s unlike anything you’ve seen before.

The hundred-year-old images are from Britain’s Imperial War Museum, colorized and rendered in 3-D. Over 600 hours of audio with veterans in the 1960s are cut together to create a collective narrative. There are no talking heads and no subtitles, just honesty about the experience on the Western Front.

The details are repulsive, highlighting unsanitary conditions and unprecedented destruction. Of the many stories, one that sticks with me is of a man running between the front and back lines who slipped and died in the muck. It’s reminiscent of the “Dead Marshes” sequence in “Lord of the Rings” (Tolkien was a WWI vet) and I have no doubt that this was very much on Jackson’s mind.

Jackson’s use of editing is extraordinary. He moves between his restored moving images to period drawings during the heat of battle, but with the sound effects and breathless description it is seamless. Much of this is due to the frankness of the commentary, cleaned up to sound like it was recorded yesterday.

While difficult to watch at times (this is far more graphic than a Ken Burns doc) there are moments of humor. The British stiff upper lip is very much a co-star; even during the darkest times, the witnesses are ready to crack a joke. Thanks to the cutting edge technology used in this project, it’s as if these voices are right there beside you.