* Editorial: Peter Jackson brings war to life
Armistice Day has usually been overshadowed in New Zealand by Anzac Day but tomorrow’s 100th anniversary of the end of World War I will be an Armistice Day with a difference.
The two-minute silence that will be observed at Pukeahu National War Memorial Park in Wellington at 11am will be broken by ‘‘a fanfare of bells, sirens and horns across the city and harbour, echoing the joyous sounds heard across Aotearoa when news of the Armistice reached our shores’’, according to the Government’s ww100 website. In case the noise fails to reach you, there will be smaller events in churches, halls and at war memorials all over the country.
Or you may prefer the quiet of the cinema. For New Zealanders, Sir Peter Jackson’s new, feature-length World War I documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, will seem a natural companion to Te Papa’s monumental The Scale of Our
War exhibition, in which the Gallipoli story was powerfully told by Weta Workshop’s giant, hyper-real sculptures, and Jackson’s The Great War Exhibition, which aimed to recreate the overwhelming sensory experience of combat.
Like those exhibitions, They Shall Not Grow Old is an experiment designed to bring history into the present. Jackson assembled a new World War I narrative from footage held by the British Imperial War Museums, including the legendary 1916 film The Battle of the Somme. One of his innovations was to colourise and change the speed of grainy black and white footage, giving us a clearer sense of how war must have looked to soldiers on the Western Front.
A world we have always seen in shades of grey can even look astonishingly pretty. That only makes the war’s horrors harder to take.
Colourisation has had a bad reputation as a gimmicky device and some film buffs resist it. But it works effectively in this case because of the way it adds meaning. Like The Wizard of Oz, or even the Russian cult classic Stalker, Jackson’s film begins and ends in a mundane black and white world. The film only switches to colour once we are within shelling distance of the front line.
Everything comes vividly alive: the routines of the soldiers, the noise and impact of artillery, the clouds of poisonous gas, the lice and the rats. We see the nervous grins of the soldiers as they face the camera. Some of these young men were just 17 or 18 – Jackson wants to reach out to them across the abyss of history.
While the visual innovations have been widely commented on, the soundtrack is equally effective. Voices of more than 100 old soldiers collected by the BBC and the Imperial War Museums are woven together to create narration that runs from the excited anticipation of war to the oddly depressing aftermath.
One of the truisms of the war is that returned servicemen felt unable to communicate the experience to others. Jackson’s documentary helps explain why, and it was not just the horrors of wartime that were so out of the ordinary, but also the camaraderie and a sense of belonging. And while it was produced from British materials originally for a British audience, it has plenty of local resonance, including war songs delivered by gusto by Wellington musicians Plan 9.
Everything comes vividly alive ... the noise of artillery, the clouds of poisonous gas.