In 2014, on the centenary of the First World War, Peter Jackson was asked by the Imperial War Museum in London to construct something new and unfamiliar out of century-old archival footage. He was, in addition, given access to countless hours of BBC interviews with veterans. Many of them attest to having enlisted a couple years shy of the legal threshold—19. The footage shows plump Edwardian youth on the march; the voices are of men fading into old age, after the empire they defended had fallen.
It had always struck me that one of the injustices to the memory of this war—and an ironic one at that—was the technological limitation of the devices that recorded it. In some ways, World War I is more distant to us than the Civil War, which has come down through history poeticized by Mathew Brady’s silver-gelatin portraits. By 1914, innovators like Thomas Edison had prodded still photos to move, but not to catch up to our eyes; hand-cranked cameras produced a maniacal judder that looks stultifying to viewers accustomed to the projection rate, now deemed lifelike, of 24 frames per second. Sync sound was more than a decade away.
Jackson, who shook sensory preconceptions by shooting The Hobbit at 48 frames per second, has, in a way, put the rabbit back in the hat with They Shall Not Grow Old. As soon as these dough-faced Tommies exchange their ra-ra training exercises for the trenches of Belgium and France, the movie goes from stark blacks and whites to soupy green; slip on 3-D glasses, and it has depth. Everything has been “corrected” for modern film speed.