World War I doc a technical, emotional feat

Peter Jackson is not a director who would shy away from a challenge, but “They Shall Not Grow Old” is an impressive feat on several levels.

Approached to make a documentary about World War I culled from archival footage, Jackson went beyond … several steps, in fact. 

The result is both a technical marvel and an engaging and emotional telling of the lives of British infantry soldiers’ first-hand experiences that doubles as a time capsule of a century ago.

As Jackson began reviewing the archival footage from the Imperial War Museum's archives, he passed some of the old footage along to his technical team to work on a digital restoration.

He was so impressed with the results, he pushed further into a wholly unique idea few filmmakers could pull off: converting the footage to color. Oh, and 3D.

The restoration of the footage pulls these soldiers into our modern world, very much like ghosts. Expressions are readable. Small moments of the experience in the trenches come to life.

Taking it another step, “They Shall Not Grow Old” tells these stories directly from the soldiers who lived them. There is no narration except the accounts pulled from audio interviews with British soldiers recorded in the 1960s and ’70s.

Your first takeaway from this war documentary is one that’s often lost in war films (Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” being a notable exception).

These were children. 

We hear soldier after soldier speak about the deep patriotic desire to serve, and most didn’t let being too young stop them. While the required age of enlistment at the time was 19, many as young as 15 simply lied about their age to serve.

Tales of basic training set up the heart of the film — as well as when the color and 3D effects make their appearance. In a subtle way, a reveal much like “The Wizard of Oz,” when the soldiers reach the battlefront, that’s when things get real.

Jackson does augment this reality with the addition of sound effects and some voice acting providing audio to support the soldiers’ words.

And those words may have more impact than the impressive visuals. It’s a different perspective on war, one of duty and a very British sensibility. The notion of a mutual respect between the British troops and their German counterparts is particularly remarkable to hear.

The 3D effect is at times a blessing and a curse, as it’s inconsistent in its effectiveness.

But the overall effect of “They Shall Not Grow Old” makes for a haunting experience, and one worth taking.