In my latest Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column, I talk about They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s new World War II documentary, and the way in which it uses digital techniques to alter and manipulate historic film footage.
Here’s an excerpt:
Read the whole thing here.
Few things are rarer than a big-screen documentary that receives wildly enthusiastic mass-media attention—especially one whose subject is something that happened a century ago. But “They Shall Not Grow Old,” Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary, which was screened in select U.S. theaters by Fathom Events earlier this month, got so much favorable press that starting on Friday, it will be shown at 500 theaters in 150 North American markets. If it got any bad reviews, I didn’t see them, and when I saw the film a couple of weeks ago, I was stunned by the compulsive power of its extraordinarily vivid portrait of life in the front-line trenches.
Even so, certain critics have expressed lingering reservations about the extent to which Mr. Jackson has digitally altered the archival film footage supplied by London’s Imperial War Museum on which “They Shall Not Grow Old” is based. Adam Gopnik, for instance, wrote in a largely admiring New Yorker review of the film that such alteration inevitably raises “unsettling questions” about its underlying authenticity. He has a point, too: Not only has most of the footage been colorized, but Mr. Jackson has changed it in other ways, adding a soundtrack, correcting the speed at which it is shown, reconfiguring parts of certain scenes to make them resemble the camerawork you’d see in a modern movie and, most surprisingly, incorporating a 3D effect (though many screenings are “flat”).
None of this bothered me while I was watching “They Shall Not Grow Old.” But as I reflected on what I’d seen, I found myself asking: Has Mr. Jackson gone too far? Can any movie that manipulates archival footage so extensively be trusted as a historical document? This is especially important because the popular success of “They Shall Not Grow Old” means that it will henceforth become the gold standard for documentaries based on historical film footage. So let’s take a closer look at what Mr. Jackson has done—and not done….
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The theatrical trailer for They Shall Not Grow Old: