Bringing WWI to life

“They Shall Not Grow Old” features restored footage of World War I. The documentary will be screened on Thursday night at The Heritage Museum and Cultural Center.

ST. JOSEPH — They went to war with eager young faces. But those faces became lined with age and anxiety as they experienced the horrors of combat.

Some left their bodies on the battlefield, while others left their souls.

When they returned home, no one really wanted to hear about the hell they had been through.

This universal experience of the soldier is at the heart of “They Shall Not Grow Old,” Peter Jackson’s documentary of restored footage from World War I, which will be screened at 6 p.m. Thursday at The Heritage Museum and Cultural Center, 601 Main St.

The screening, the first in the area for the 2018 film, is sponsored by Lest We Forget.

“It’s our mission, to make sure people don’t forget” the country’s veterans, said Larry Wozniak, president of Lest We Forget.

Sandra Spiering, The Heritage Museum’s director of programming, saw the film in Kalamazoo earlier this year during its limited release. She immediately knew it was something she wanted to bring here and approached Lest We Forget, which immediately decided to pay for the screening.

“It comes alive,” Spiering said of the images Jackson’s team painstakingly colorized, standardizing the film speed and adding voice narration from actual veterans. “Their faces come alive. Some of them were 15, 16 years old. You see the pain in their faces, you see them laughing and you see them talking.”

Existing black-and-white footage “is grainy, herky-jerky,” Spiering said, and the history of the global conflict has been pushed to the side.

Through Jackson’s restoration “it looks so brand new,” Wozniak said.

Bringing WWI to life

“They Shall Not Grow Old” features restored footage of World War I. The documentary will be screened on Thursday night at The Heritage Museum and Cultural Center.

Jackson, known for his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, was approached by Great Britain’s Imperial War Museum to make something new and unique out of their 100 hours of documentary footage for the 100th anniversary of the end of the war, which lasted from August 1914 to November 1918.

He spent three years on the project, and debuted the film in December. It is dedicated to his grandfather, who took part in the conflict.

The filmmakers carefully researched the color of the uniforms, equipment and landscape, even visiting battle scenes. They also culled through 600 hours of interviews with veterans recorded in the 1950s and ’60s, selecting observations that are the film’s only narration.

For some footage, they employed lip readers who provided dialogue for the silent film that is accurate down to the regional accents. Sound effects were added for bombs exploding and even rats scuttling through the trenches.

The title for the film comes from Laurence Binyon’s poem, “Ode of Remembrance”: They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.

World War I accounted for 40 million military and civilian deaths. Great Britain and its colonies suffered 1 million combat deaths, with France experiencing 1.1 million, and the Germans 1.8 million.

The United States, which entered the war in 1917 and was involved in major combat toward the end, lost 55,000 men, including 100 from Berrien County.

The film does contain some graphic scenes of combat casualties.

Both of Wozniak’s grandfathers fought during WWI. Wozniak is a Vietnam veteran.

Lest We Forget has another connection to the war. Members befriended Frank Buckles, the last living American WWI doughboy, and visited him numerous times at his West Virginia home before his death in 2011 at 110. Buckles, who was given a lifetime membership in Lest We Forget, enlisted at 16 and served in France.

Spiering’s mother was a child living in German during World War II, and her stories sparked an interest in history in her daughter.

Spiering lived in Europe for a time, and has visited WWI sites, and has stood in the trenches where the soldiers fought and died.

Jackson’s film avoids the larger picture of the conflict and shows it from the point of view of the soldiers who are fighting to survive and to protect their comrades. They developed an unexpected affinity with their erstwhile enemies through the universe of suffering.

When they returned home, many of the veterans faced unemployment and indifference from civilians, experiences echoed following other conflicts.

Along with the two-hour film, The Heritage Museum will display WWI memorabilia and uniforms. Wozniak will give a brief presentation on Lest We Forget’s annual activities in June.

Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5.

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak