Emo­tion cap­ture

Peter Jack­son gets real with his ground­break­ing new World War I doc­u­men­tary They Shall Never Grow Old


IF IT HADN’T been for World War I, Peter Jack­son wouldn’t ex­ist. “My dad only em­i­grated to New Zealand and met my mum be­cause he’d heard good things about the Kiwi sol­diers in that war,” he ex­plains; and thanks to tales of a pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther who served, the Great War be­came a life­long ob­ses­sion for the Os­car-win­ning di­rec­tor, with a cou­ple of bi­planes and a tank among his mem­o­ra­bilia. (It isn’t lost on him that Tolkien sur­vived the Somme.)

In his hour-long doc­u­men­tary They Shall Never Grow Old, Jack­son has had the chance to unite his “hobby” with his day job to cre­ate “some­thing au­then­tic”. Aware of his pas­sion, Lon­don’s Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum asked if he might cre­ate some­thing from their archive of footage. Turns out dozens of fea­ture films were shot amid the may­hem. “It was like a World War I fran­chise,” notes Jack­son.

The mu­seum’s only re­quest was that he use the ma­te­rial in an orig­i­nal way. Rather than his­to­ri­ans pon­tif­i­cat­ing, Jack­son’s thoughts turned to com­put­ers. Could they let us see through a soldier’s eyes? Us­ing a cock­tail of restora­tion tech­niques — to re­move the scratches, sharpen the im­age, change the speed, colourise the film and make it 3D — the re­sults were so vi­brant, the mu­seum wor­ried peo­ple would as­sume it was staged. “What took me to­tally by sur­prise is how the faces of the men come alive,” says Jack­son. “The peo­ple be­came hu­mans again, not these Char­lie Chap­lin fig­ures.”

Here was his film — the life of the soldier on the West­ern Front un­clouded by the fog of his­tory: what he ate, what he felt, what he thought. “It was purely about hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence,” he says.

When it came to the au­dio, the BBC archives held over 600 hours of in­ter­views com­pleted for the ’60s TV se­ries The Great War. “We use 120 dif­fer­ent vet­er­ans, and they are in­cred­i­ble. There’s no self-pity. Just mat­ter-of-fact guys with a lot of hu­mour.” Launch­ing at the Lon­don Film Fes­ti­val, be­fore be­ing broad­cast by the BBC on Re­mem­brance Day, his labour of love is an ex­traor­di­nar­ily rel­e­vant piece of time travel. “We found a trench raid,” says Jack­son, who in­cludes shots of scat­tered bod­ies and bloody wounds found in out­takes. “You can al­ways tell com­bat footage be­cause the cam­era­man is be­hind sand­bags try­ing to stay alive.”

But also in­cluded are scenes of cap­tured Ger­man medics “pitch­ing in” with Bri­tish first-aid teams. “They weren’t fight­ing the Nazis. It wasn’t a war of ha­tred in that way,” he says. “Here was a com­mon hu­man­ity.”


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