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"They Shall Not Grow Old" is a brilliant documentary film about a hellscape. It is also a state-of-the-art showcase of modern filmmaking technique that uses 100-year-old raw material.

The film depicts trench warfare in World War I. Vermin, corpses, trench foot and mud as deep and deadly as quicksand play major roles in this movie. The really bad dental hygiene of the era plays a supporting role. I cannot recommend the film to anyone squeamish, but can recommend the 30-minute "making of" documentary that follows the main attraction to everyone if it ever comes to theaters again. I caught the single showing of the movie in Fayetteville on Dec. 27.

Peter Jackson of "The Lord of the Rings" fame got an odd request from the Imperial War Museum in Britain. Could he do anything with reels and reels of silent film footage from World War I stored in the museum's archives? The centennial of the end of the war was coming up. Jackson looked at some of the footage and realized he could do far more than the museum's directors ever thought possible.

Film footage from a century ago not only used a different speed of projection than modern films. It had no constant film speed at all. The cameras used to take the footage were cranked by hand. No one could maintain a perfectly even speed. No computer algorithm could account for the random variations. Only a highly trained eye could even things out to where the movement was truly natural. The pros at the labs Jackson brought to the project did this meticulous work for hours and hours of film.

Much of the footage showed black outlines and silhouette against bright white skies. But deep within the film were the images and the details. Computer video editing brought out the details, sharpened the focus and took out the graininess. Again, this was meticulous work that skilled people had to control.

The richness of the details brought out by all that work allowed the makers of this movie to show close-ups of men who were mere moving dots in the original footage.

Then the images were colorized -- not the cheap gimmick variety tried decades ago, but deep, rich and accurate work. Jackson brought in authentic uniforms and equipment from the era for color comparisons. Thousands of photos of the plants and soil of Belgium were shot and used for color verification, too.

Then professional lip-readers were brought in.

Once those lip-readers worked out what these soldiers were saying, the crew figured out where the unit a given soldier was in was from. If it was a unit from, say, Yorkshire in England, they brought in an actor who could do a Yorkshire accent to dub in what was being said. Other sound effects work -- artillery, horses pulling loads, explosions -- are all first-rate.

Overarching all of it are audio descriptions of whatever aspect of trench life was being shown. Those descriptions were from BBC interviews of World War I veterans taken during the 1960s and 1970s.

The result is a film as lifelike as film can be. A viewer looks into the faces of frightened men who are crowded into a sunken road in Belgium, waiting to attack. The audience is told when and where the attack took place. That particular sunken road, for instance, was found, visited and photographed by Jackson himself. "Many of the men shown here are in the last 30 minutes of their lives," Jackson says as the old footage is shown again in the special feature after the movie.

So why watch such a detailed, unsparing depiction of suffering? Jackson said he hopes his film will inspire people to find which of their ancestors fought in the Great War, for almost every family in western civilization and much of the rest of the world sent someone to it. After all, more Americans died in the First World War than in Korea and Vietnam combined.

That is reason enough. There is another reason, though: to see how little has changed.

The bloody slogs being fought in the Middle East and Afghanistan right now have far more in common with the trenches of World War I than the blitzkrieg of Desert Storm. Those who fight today share the same grim determination of their great-grandfathers.

Commentary on 01/05/2019

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