Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

As media-saturated as we are today, it’s pretty hard to take a lot of history seriously–particularly the period which included early-20th Century newsreel footage. Those black-and-white images are so herky-jerky, and everyone’s so self-conscious being in front of new-fangled movie cameras, that even the most serious of topics feels like a Keystone Kops or Charlie Chaplin reel.

When Peter Jackson was asked to produce a feature documentary to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the World War I armistice, he immediately saw the core problem of the project: finding a way to make the archived footage come alive, and lose that overly-familiar and almost comic artifice. They Shall Not Grow Old is Jackson’s stunning solution to the problem.

The archive footage has been meticulously restored–getting the proper brightness and contrast to reveal details never seen before, stabilizing frame rates to remove the Chaplinesque body movement, repairing scratches and tears, editing to introduce pans and zooms. And then, to bring it all really to life, meticulously colorizing all the footage and converting to 3D.

On top of all this, Jackson elected to create a single through-line of story, in two hours taking us through what it would have been like for a British solider to go through recruitment, training, shipping to the German front, and then spending several years in and out of the trenches… finally getting the unremarkable news that all the hell was finally over.

To tell this story, the voiceover is provided by UK servicemen who actually served on the European front–the audio recordings having been mostly archived in the late 1960s.

Jackson’s film is extraordinary, going way beyond what Ken Burns was able to achieve with his landmark Civil War series. They Shall Not Grow Old puts a face to “The War to End All Wars,” and for combatants on both sides. Few films fall in the “must-see” category, but this is really one of them. It’s returning to theaters for a short regular run after a handful of Fathom Events screenings in December and January.

I will note, however, that this is not the most exciting of films. The pace is slow, and you’re listening to old men talk for nearly two hours. Get plenty of sleep before you go!

They Shall Not Grow Old opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16 and the AMC Kent Station 14.

Find tickets and showtimes on Fandango.
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