Almost all of the motion picture film shot during the first quarter of the 20th Century was cranked by hand through the camera. Some of it was shot at 10 frames per second (fps), some at 12 fps, some at 18 fps. Projected today, the film has that herky-jerky quality that resulted in the “fractured flickers” shown on early television. And that was only one of the differences. Much of the film was not properly exposed; it was in black and white; it was silent; much of it was multi-generational dupes; the film stock was different; and most of the film stock has not survived a century of storage in even the most optimal conditions.
Therefore it was a miracle when I saw Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, which was commissioned by Britain’s Imperial War Museum. The Museum gave the New Zealand director (who gave us The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) carte blanche to take 100 hours of original World War I footage and 600 hours of interviews with survivors and make an interesting film of it.
Jackson did more than that. He had the old footage restored and brilliantly colorized. He had lip readers write down what they men were saying and commissioned actors with the exact Lancashire or Dorset or Scots dialect (based on the regimental insignia on the men’s uniforms) to create a dialog track that synced exactly with lip movements.
What resulted from the efforts of Jackson and his crew was resuscitating a whole period of history almost exactly as if it were filmed today using current film-making methods. His Tommies in the trenches in France and Belgium were real people with real faces and real voices. They were not isolated by the whole iconography of silent film.
This is a film which has to be seen to be believed. The whole horror of war in the trenches is brought to life in color and sound. The film is not for everyone: There are numerous shots of bodies of the dead covered with flies, rats in the trenches, gaping wounds, and so on. This is all real war footage—not in any way Disneyfied.