'They Shall Not Grow Old': Peter Jackson's humanization of WWI

Elizabeth Howe
January 02, 2019 - 1:47 pm

Photo courtesy of State Historical Society of North Dakota

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Peter Jackson's WWI documentary, "They Shall Not Grow Old," used state-of-the-art technology, never before seen WWI footage, and 600 hours of BBC archival interviews to create the most groundbreaking account of WWI ever experienced.

The film showed in select theaters in North America on Dec. 17 and, after two days of showings, pulled in the largest single-day gross for a Fathom documentary in the United States — $2.3 million. Now, Warner Bros. has announced a second release for theaters in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. on Jan. 11. On Feb. 1, the showings will expand to 25 additional markets.

“This documentary is simply special on every level – it is an arresting and gripping way to humanize and honor those who served so bravely during WWI by using actual footage shot at the time and narrated with the voices of the soldiers who experienced it," said Carolyn Blackwood, New Line Cinema president and chief content officer. "Leave it to Peter to come up with a groundbreaking way to reflect back on a period in history that deserves another look.”

Jackson started the project in 2014, working with London's Imperial War Museum and the BBC to build colorized footage and the voices of 120 British soldiers into the cinematic feat that is "They Shall Not Grow Old." Jackson also gave the silent era an audio track — created from scratch.

“The clarity was such that these soldiers on the film came alive,” Jackson told the New York Times. “Their humanity just jumped out at you. This footage has been around for 100 years and these men had been buried behind a fog of damage, a mask of grain and jerkiness and sped-up film. Once restored, it’s the human aspect that you gain the most.”

Since there are currently a limited number of showings of the documentary, Chuck Thompson of Popular Mechanics — who has written two books on WWII battlefields — provided some tips to make sure you get the most out of your viewing experience.

For example, Thompson writes that the documentary throws you into the world of WWI — without a lot of historical backgrounds. So a brush up on WWI history is helpful. And make sure you stay through the credits — Jackson provides a 30 minute behind-the-scenes look where he describes the fascinating technical methods and strategies that went into creating "They Shall Not Grow Old."

“With this being the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, I can’t imagine a more appropriate time to honor the courage of the soldiers who fought in WWI – what was then ‘the war to end all wars’ – many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice," said Jeff Goldstein, president of domestic distributions at Warner Bros. Pictures. "Peter has made history come alive through the medium of film, and we are so pleased to be a part of bringing his vision to today’s audiences.”

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