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.”
THEY SHALL NEVER GROW OLD WILL PREMIERE AT THE BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL ON 16 OCTOBER