Sir Peter’s new war film

What is par­tic­u­larly strik­ing is how un­der­stated Jack­son is in his ap­proach.

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They Shall Not Grow Old (RP16, 99mins) Di­rected by Sir Peter Jack­son Re­viewed by James Croot

The last time Sir Peter Jack­son di­rected a ‘‘doc­u­men­tary’’ he caused a na­tional out­rage.

After his and Costa Botes’ con­vinc­ing, com­pelling and ad­mit­tedly slightly con­found­ing look at un­sung Kiwi film-maker Colin McKen­zie, For­got­ten Sil­ver, aired on TVNZ in 1995, many view­ers were dis­mayed to later dis­cover that it had been a hoax. It was our own cul­tural mo­ment to ri­val Or­son Welles’ fa­mous War of the Worlds ra­dio broad­cast.

But when the truth was un­cov­ered, talk­back ra­dio went wild and news­pa­per let­ter col­umns over­flowed with anger.

‘‘A pox on Peter Jack­son’s fu­ture ef­forts and may his worst night­mares be dig­i­tally en­hanced,’’ wrote an out­raged Derek Martin to The Evening Post, com­par­ing the work to those cre­ated by the Nazi regime’s head of pro­pa­ganda Joseph Goebbels.

Twenty-three years on and Jack­son’s re­turn to craft­ing a cine­matic-friendly story from archival ma­te­rial should at­tract no such vit­riol.

In­stead, They Shall Not Grow Old, should be lauded (as it has by those at its de­but at last month’s Lon­don Film Fes­ti­val) for not only mak­ing his­tory come alive again, but pro­vid­ing a po­ten­tial tem­plate and touch­stone for fu­ture film­mak­ers and sto­ry­tellers want­ing to look back.

Asked by the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum to cre­ate some­thing from its ex­ten­sive ar­chive for the com­mem­o­ra­tions of World War I, Jack­son and edi­tor Jabez Olssen (Star Wars: Rogue One) have used all the 2018 tech­nol­ogy at their dis­posal to clean up, colourise, change-up the film speed and com­bine it with au­dio the BBC col­lected from more than 100 sol­diers in 1964 for its 26-part doc­u­men­tary se­ries The Great War.

Aimed at cre­at­ing a sol­diers’ eye-view of the four-year con­flict, the re­sult is a stun­ning piece of cinema, an en­gross­ing and en­light­en­ing look at his­toric events and a mov­ing trib­ute to those who fought for Bri­tain in the fields of Europe (among oth­ers, Jack­son has ded­i­cated it to his grand­fa­ther, Sergeant, Wil­liam Jack­son, who served from 1910 to 1919).

What is par­tic­u­larly strik­ing is how un­der­stated Jack­son is in his ap­proach.

There’s no sign of a syrupy score (Plan 9’s sound­track fea­tures haunt­ing whistling and song pop­u­lar among the sol­diers), the sol­diers’ reflections are sup­ple­mented only by di­a­logue Jack­son and his co­horts have at­tempted to ‘‘recre­ate’’ (us­ing lip read­ers) from the silent footage and the colour only comes when we reach the trenches.

Be­fore that mo­ment though, 25 min­utes in, we’ve also been treated to fas­ci­nat­ing ac­counts of when the news of the war was an­nounced (in­clud­ing one who was play­ing a Ger­man rugby team at the time), sign­ing up to join the troops (‘‘it was a re­lief from the bor­ing job at home’’) and re­ceiv­ing their uni­forms (one kilt-wearer had a note warn­ing oth­ers that he hadn’t been is­sued with any un­der­pants).

It’s those kind of de­tails that will draw view­ers of all ages into the his­tory and make this a doc­u­ment that will fi­nally com­ple­ment, if not re­place, Peter Weir’s Gal­lipoli (an equally ex­cel­lent, but very dif­fer­ent movie) as a sta­ple of World War I ed­u­ca­tion in Kiwi class­rooms.

They Shall Not Grow Old will screen in New Zealand cin­e­mas from Sun­day, Ar­mistice Day.

The di­rec­tor has cleaned up and colourised archival footage from World War I.

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