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They Shall Not Grow Old

"Why Sir Peter Jackson's WWI documentary is a historic movie moment"

★★★★★ - STUFF 

- The last time Sir Peter Jackson directed a "documentary" he caused a national outrage.

After his and Costa Botes' convincing, compelling and admittedly slightly confounding look at unsung Kiwi film-maker Colin McKenzie, Forgotten Silver, aired on TVNZ in 1995, many viewers were dismayed to later discover that it had been a hoax. It was our own cultural moment to rival Orson Welles' famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast.

But when the truth was uncovered, talkback went wild and newspaper letter columns overflowed with anger. "A pox on Peter Jackson's future efforts and may his worst nightmares be digitally enhanced," wrote an outraged Derek Martin to The Evening Post, comparing the work to those created by the Nazi regime's head of propaganda Josef Goebbles.

Twenty-three years on and Jackson's return to crafting a cinematic-friendly story from archival material should attract no such vitriol. Instead, They Shall Not Grow Old, should be lauded (as it has by those at its debut at last month's London Film Festival) for not only making history come alive again, but providing a potential template and touchstone for future film-makers and storytellers wanting to look back.

Asked by the Imperial War Museum to create something from its extensive archive for the commemorations of World War I, Jackson and editor Jabez Olssen (Star Wars: Rogue One) have used all the 2018 technology at their disposal to clean up, colourise, change-up the film speed and combine it with audio the BBC collected from more than 100 soldiers in 1964 for its 26-part documentary series The Great War.

Aimed at creating a soldiers' eye-view of the four-year conflict, the result is a stunning piece of cinema, an engrossing and enlightening look at historic events and a moving tribute to those who fought for Britain in the fields of Europe (amongst others, Jackson has dedicated it to his grandfather, Sgt, William Jackson, who served from 1910 to 1919).

What is particularly striking is how understated Jackson is in his approach. There's no sign of a syrupy score (Plan 9's soundtrack features haunting whistling and song popular among the soldiers), the soldier's reflections are supplemented only by dialogue Jackson and his cohorts have attempted to "recreate" (using lip readers) from the silent footage and the colour only comes in when we reach the trenches.

Before that moment though, 25 minutes in, we've also been treated to fascinating accounts of when the news of the war was announced (including one who was playing a German rugby team at the time), signing up to join the troops ("it was a relief from the boring job at home") and receiving their uniforms (one kilt-wearer had a note warning others that he hadn't been issued with any underpants).

It's those kind of details that will draw viewers of all ages into the history and make this a document that will finally complement, if not replace, Peter Weir's Gallipoli (an equally excellent, but very different movie) as a staple of World War I education in Kiwi classrooms.

- James Croot, Stuff

They Shall Not Grow Old (RP16, 99mins) Directed by Sir Peter Jackson.

They Shall Not Grow Old will screen in New Zealand cinemas from November 11 (Armistice Day).

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