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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Chris declares THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD to be the best film of 2018... and DEMANDS that it get a wider release!

Well, that's a pretty bold assessment to make considering that 2018 has been a year that I haven't seen many movies during initial release in a cinema.  And where something like Solo: A Star Wars Story and Avengers: Infinity War are usually films that I'd see multiple times during their theatrical run, I only caught those once each.  And lately my schedule has become packed with a lot of activity: various projects and whatnot.

That being said, two months ago the sense hit that They Shall Not Grow Old was going to be an experience unlike any other in recent memory.  And that sense was proven just.  Only two movies before had ever left me feeling so impacted and affected as the credits rolled: 1993's Schindler's List and then The Passion Of The Christ eleven years later.

But as emotionally overwhelming as those two films are, neither can boast a cast of those who really were there, as they lived through it.  And in that respect, They Shall Not Grow Old will linger just as unshakable in the minds of many for the rest of their lives.

Let's have the trailer for the U.S. limited release speak for itself:

In time for the centennial of the armistice that ended World War I, Peter Jackson (The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, 2005's King Kong, and many other films) was given the opportunity to assemble a work honoring the British soldiers who volunteered to take to the trenches of France and Belgium.  To that end, Jackson and his crew were given access to more than a hundred hours of footage from a full century ago, along with more than 600 hours of audio interviews made in the Sixties and Seventies with veterans of the Great War.

But Peter Jackson decided early on that they were going to go further... much further... than any historical documentary had before or was even possible to achieve previously.

For 99 minutes, They Shall Not Grow Old follows the young men (officially 19 to 35, but some only 14 and 15) of Britain who rallied to enlist even as the sky had just begun to darken over the distant Balkans.  When the disastrous chain of events brings England and Germany into a declared state of war, the ranks of the army swell.  Some are moved by sense of duty, others out of having to avoid the shame of refraining from the cause.  And still others simply out of sense of adventure.  And for the first 15 minutes or so, it's much the classic black and white footage that we have become accustomed to for most of the past century.

It's when the British cross the Channel and into Western Europe that we are suddenly jarred into the war as never beheld until this year.

Using digital photo and video technology - much of which had to be invented along the way - Jackson and his team took that very old footage and cleaned it up, brought it to the standard 24 frames per second, and bestowed vivid color.  The visual result: a documentary about World War One that looks as if it could have been filmed just yesterday.  The clarity and sharpness between the processed footage and modern video is nigh on indistinguishable.  And just as uncompromising: dead soldiers pile up on the battlefield, maggots squirm in the carcasses of horses obliterated by machine gun fire, fatted rats infest the network of trenches.  Most will recoil in disgust at the photos of cases of gangrenous trench foot, common among the soldiers forced to work while standing in waste-filled water.

And still, it's not enough.  Jackson's crew went all out to bring audio to their work.  Professional lip readers were hired to make out words spoken on the silent footage, with voice actors providing audible dialogue.  An officer's otherwise uncertain reading to his soldiers compelled Jackson to seek out the official announcements of that particular day the footage was shot, then recording on his iPhone a reading one of the notices... and discovering that they had found the match.  The Foley effects are as thorough as they are profound, even using modern New Zealand field artillery to provide sounds for the German cannons.

The result is a plunge into the reality of war that will haunt, that will evoke laughter, that will make you smile.  And then will break your heart as you realize that many if not most of these fine young men are soon to be butchered, blown to bits or blistered by poison gas in the war that was supposed to end all wars.

They Shall Not Grow Old is by great leagues the most powerful motion picture that I have seen in a very long time while in a theater.  And last night, December 17th, was the first of two nationwide screenings in the United States.  And at the show I caught, that auditorium was packed with an audience as varied as any I have witnessed for a film.  They were of all ages, of multiple ethnicities.  A nine-year old boy was there with his father and grandfather.  One man had his two daughters with him.  There were high school and college students and retirees and men and women and... for a film that has such a limited release and scarce marketing stateside, the audience size defied expectations.  And there we were, together and across a century sharing in the laughter and tragedy of those British soldiers.  One hundred years and just as many minutes, we were all united in respect and admiration toward those who went before.

And They Shall Not Grow Old is one motion picture that absolutely merits a wide release.  Much wider.  It will be sought and appreciated by many, many others, especially those who otherwise may not have given much thought to the history of World War One and how its consequences affect us still today.  If that doesn't happen, They Shall Not Grow Old will prove to be the film that sends a lot of people over the top and into upgrading their home entertainment to 4K sets and ultra high-def Blu.  It certainly is the one movie I most want to have in my library in as beautiful a depth as currently available.

If and when that Blu-ray streets, I sincerely hope it includes the making-of featurette that follows the credits at the nationwide screening events.  Peter Jackson elaborates quite a lot on the various procedures used to enhance the ancient footage and to enhance it with sound.  He also notes that They Shall Not Grow Old focuses on the British soldiers who were involved in the war.  Meanwhile, there also exists hundreds of hours of footage from the perspectives of the American forces, those of the French and Germans, and others.  Nearly every faction and ethnicity involved in the Great War wound up with some representation recorded on celluloid.  Footage from the streets of Paris and the decks of German U-boats.  Given that They Shall Not Grow Old is as groundbreaking a technical achievement as Avatar and Jurassic Park, perhaps those other perspectives will be given similar treatment.  Were it to be so, then Peter Jackson will have given us and our posterity a priceless lesson in human nature at its worst... and at its best.

Rating movies on a scale isn't something I usually do, but They Shall Not Grow Old gets a solid 10 out of 10 from me.  There is one more nationwide screening currently scheduled for December 27th.  If at all possible, it's well worth taking the time to see on the big screen.

Just one last thing though.  Dear Peter Jackson, if you are reading this: buy some shoes, man.  You're an Academy Award-winning filmmaker.  You don't have to prove anything anymore about becoming a real hobbit.  Time to get yourself properly shod!