If you watch an old foreign film, the kind where the lines are translated in text at the bottom of the screen, you can never quite grasp the meaning of what the film is attempting to convey. It all sounds like gibberish, and there are certain things like sarcasm that express well in speech but not in text. If you have to read the translated words at the bottom of the screen, your eyes are always down at the bottom of the screen every time somebody talks, which makes it difficult to simultaneously read the actor’s face. In life, people are typically capable of reading movements, large and small, in the faces of the others - a little skyward turn of the eyes, a little curl of the lips, etc. - by which we can divine meanings, attitudes and intentions that are not expressed verbally. Typically, we read these signs without thinking about them at all. They help us spot when a friend is being genuine, or when the salesman is trying to yank our chain. In short, they help us read the humanity within the human.

Now try and call to mind any footage of World War I you might have seen. Your mental image is probably black and white, which hinders our ability to “read” what we see, because most of the time we don’t experience the world without color. Typically, that footage is also silent. Even without gibberish speech like we hear in a foreign film, World War I footage still feels “foreign” to our brains in a different way. As a consequence, we modern folks can look at film of soldiers marching,  running around in a trench, or manning a machine gun, but it usually just looks like robots going through their motions, and it doesn’t sound like anything at all. We don’t really look at the silent, grayscale soldiers as being quite human, I suspect, and so we begin to think that the World War I might as well have happened 1,000 years ago, rather than 100.

The 2017 documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” by Peter Jackson (of “Lord of the Rings” fame) seeks to change that. Jackson was given access to a vast collection of World War I footage, which by nature of the timeframe was grayscale and silent, and he embarked on a grand project to restore the footage, colorize it and add appropriate sound and speeches. Everything from the color of the uniforms to the sound made by the vehicles and armaments used at the time was researched at length, and lipreaders were employed to try and parse out what the unheard soldiers might have been saying.

The result is absolutely stunning. Nothing else I’ve experienced really even compares. 

The aforementioned issues of “communication” are blasted into smithereens by Jackson’s colorized, sound-filled footage. When a fully-colorized soldier looks you in the eye, and you hear words spoken that exactly match the movement of his mouth and background noise appropriate to his surroundings, suddenly your brain accepts that soldier is very real. When you are brought into that soldier’s world, and when it feels as real as the altered footage makes it feel, your brain starts doing the things it’s good at: reading faces and nonverbal cues, grasping meanings, attitudes and intentions. That soldier and his comrades (and his enemies, as in one sequence that shows captured Germans) are no longer those faceless black and white robots. They are now human beings, as they once really were. They show joy or boredom in the trenches, they show fear before an attack, they show pain and misery, or happiness and pride afterward - and you can read it all in their faces in an unprecedented way, because your brain believes in the world Jackson is presenting. You can sympathize with them, you can despise them, or you can find them funny, but the point is, you can feel something for them, which you cannot do for grayscale, silent robots. And, because the subject is war, you often wonder, “Did this guy make it through? Did he go on to raise a family and grow old, or am I seeing him in the last hour of his life?” One is left to suspect that, for at least some of the soldiers portrayed, they were appearing on this new medium of film for the first and last time. (One thing you start to notice is that no matter what serious business they may be engaing in, many of the soldiers can’t help but drop everything and stare into the camera, that strange new machine that would have been a curious novelty to them).

Narration is culled from interviews with real World War I veterans recorded in the ‘60s and ‘70s (who were probably in their 60s and 70s, as it happens), bringing a further human element into the picture. Hearing the real voices of veterans, alongside the “reconstructed” speech from the main footage, adds a tinge of emotion to the project because, while we know that the speakers were among the fortunate ones who survived the war, every single one of them is now undoubtedly dead. The last World War I combat veteran died in 2011 at the incredible age of 110. There are probably a few people left on earth who will remember the war from childhood memory, but in another decade or so, we won’t even have that.

We will, however, have “They Shall Not Grow Old,” and I urge everyone to go buy a copy of Jackson’s documentary.

Brad O’Neil is the sports editor of the Forest Lake Times. He can be reached at brad.oneil@ecm-inc.com.

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