‘They come alive’ Tolkien director revives war footage
The BBC TV premiere and cinema release of They Shall Not Grow Old, the first world war documentary created by the Lord of the Rings director, Peter Jackson, will be a high point of this weekend’s Remembrance Day commemorations, marking the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the conflict.
Culled from footage and audio from the Imperial War Museum archive, They Shall Not Grow Old has attracted rave reviews for its painstaking conversion of grainy footage of British troops on the western front into startling colourised images. The Guardian’s chief film critic, Peter Bradshaw, said: “The effect is electrifying … soldiers are returned to an eerie, hyper-real kind of life in front of our eyes.” The Telegraph suggested it was a “historical portrait of matchless immediacy and power”. Jackson accompanies his vibrantly restored footage with an extensive oral history gleaned from interview recordings with veterans. The technical accomplishments are sure to dazzle audiences, but it’s the small things that pack the most punch – namely the strikingly expressive faces of the troops.
“I’ve been lucky enough see 100 hours of first world war footage and God, the faces are unbelievable,” Jackson told the Guardian. “These people come alive and you are instantly drawn to them. They become real people. People that you recognise from work. People that you’ve been to school with. You’re sort of seeing who they are, almost, in their faces. It’s incredible.”
Based in New Zealand, Jackson, aged 57, is best known for the multi-Oscar winning Lord of the Rings trilogy (the final instalment of which, The Return of the King, won a record-equalling 11 Oscars in 2004), as well as another Tolkien trilogy adapted from The Hobbit.
Jackson has been an innovator since early in his career, handmaking special effects for his low budget horror flicks Bad Taste (1987) and Braindead (1992). Having co-founded the visual effects company Weta Digital, Jackson had developed innovations such as performance capture technology (Gollum in The Lord of the Rings is seen as a milestone in this field) and higher frame rates (The Hobbit was presented in a hyper-real 48 frames per second, twice the usual rate).
For They Shall Not Grow Old, the film-maker entered unknown territory: “I had no idea what the result would be because I had never done it [colourising] before. I had never taken an old film and thought, ‘How can we use our computers to make this look good?’
“When it came out the other end I was absolutely amazed. It was one of the times in my life when computer technology actually stunned me. I didn’t realise how good it could be. Then I immediately thought: every single archive in the world should be restoring its film, because it can be done. We don’t have to look at sped-up and stretchy film any more.”
They Shall Not Grow Old follows the men through army recruitment and training processes, then to the horrors of the battlefield and the dismay of returning home to discover limited employment opportunities. The focus remains squarely on British troops on the western front: it’s their words, their story, their perspective.
Why not broaden the focus to accommodate other perspectives, such as nurses working in hospitals?
“We had so much stuff. Honestly, 600 hours of sound and 100 hours of footage. There is probably five or six films of this sort that could be made from that archive... Give me two-and-a-half hours and, sure, the nurses would have been there. [But] you need to do something focused and intensely and do it justice, or you kind of spread yourself too thin. It was a decision I had to make.”
He explained his process: “We’re simply taking 100-year-old footage that looks appalling … We’re not adding anything that wasn’t there on the day it was shot. We’re simply bringing it back to what it was 100 years ago. That’s exciting, because in doing so we’re bringing these guys back to life.”
In cinemas now and on BBC Two tomorrow at 9.30pm
‘Every archive should be restoring its film. We don’t have to look at sped-up, stretchy film any more’ Peter Jackson Director
A still from They Shall Not Grow Old, comparing the new colourised version with the old grainy film