They Shall Not Grow Old

Film­maker peter Jack­son on restor­ing ar­chive footage to bring the sol­diers of World War one back to life for an epic doc­u­men­tary…

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Sun­day / BBC2

Peter Jack­son’s restora­tion of World War One footage has trans­formed the flick­er­ing black-and-white images from the trenches into colour film. He tells us why this was a very per­sonal pro­ject…

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Ev­ery Novem­ber, on the 11th hour of the 11th day, we stop to re­mem­ber the sol­diers who fought in the trenches dur­ing World War One. But how much do we know about what life was like on the front line?

In a spe­cial film to mark a cen­tury since the end of the con­flict, The Lord of the Rings and The Hob­bit di­rec­tor Peter Jack­son has re­stored hours of footage to shed new light on trench war­fare, and he thinks the re­sults might raise a few eye­brows…

‘Nowa­days we look at these guys with a lot of pity,’ says Peter, 57. ‘We thought the war de­stroyed their lives, but most of them didn’t feel like that. We lis­tened to hours of in­ter­views con­ducted dur­ing the 1960s and 1970s and many of the sol­diers said they en­joyed life in the trenches and it made men of them. One even de­scribed it as an ex­tended scout camp with a bit of dan­ger thrown in!’

Mak­ing the film, which was re­leased in se­lected cin­e­mas across the coun­try last month, also gave the Os­car-win­ning di­rec­tor a new in­sight on how the av­er­age sol­dier re­flected upon his time in the trenches after he re­turned home.

‘We al­ways be­lieved they never talked about life on the Western Front be­cause it was so trau­matic,’ ex­plains Peter. ‘But the re­al­ity is that they didn’t talk about it be­cause it was point­less dis­cussing it with peo­ple who’d never ex­pe­ri­enced it. Civil­ians all had their own ideas about what the war was like and weren’t re­ally in­ter­ested in what the sol­diers who’d fought in it had to say. One vet­eran said his fa­ther pro­claimed him­self an ex­pert on the war and dis­agreed with him about in­ci­dents the chap had ac­tu­ally wit­nessed!’

After lis­ten­ing to hun­dreds of hours of ar­chive in­ter­views, the next task for Peter’s team was to

re­store the pre­cious black-and­white footage they’d been given by the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum.

His vis­ual-ef­fects com­pany spent four years re­mov­ing scratches, sharp­en­ing up images and adding colour, but the big­gest break­through came when they ad­justed the speed of the films.

‘The footage we see of World War One usu­ally has sol­diers walk­ing around like Char­lie Chap­lin,’ he says. ‘But once you slow the film down they move like we do. They be­come hu­man be­ings again and their fa­cial ex­pres­sions come alive. It was fan­tas­tic to see. I was stunned be­cause I’d never done it be­fore. The re­sults were far bet­ter than I’d dared hope!’

This new per­spec­tive on trench war­fare al­lows view­ers to peel back the lay­ers of his­tory for a more au­then­tic un­der­stand­ing of the life of the av­er­age tommy, which was cru­cial for Peter.

‘This isn’t a story about war,’ he says. ‘It’s a tale about the men who fought in it. I wanted to show their whole jour­ney, from train­ing to what they ate and drank, to the card games they played and what they thought of their mates. There’s stuff about ex­pe­ri­enc­ing shell­fire and go­ing over the top, but I wanted to paint a broader pic­ture. This is the war through their eyes and there’s plenty of hu­mour in it as well – I sup­pose that’s how they got through it.’

Peter, who was born in New Zealand after his par­ents em­i­grated from Eng­land after World War Two, also ded­i­cated the film to his Bri­tish grand­fa­ther who was one of thou­sands of sol­diers who served on the Western Front.

‘He died in 1940 so I never got to meet him,’ says Peter. ‘There are so many ques­tions

I’d have loved to ask him, but mak­ing this film helped me un­der­stand what his life was like in the trenches. It brought me closer to him in a way.’

Sean Mar­land

We thought the war de­stroyed their lives, but most of them didn’t feel like that…

Men on film: Peter Jack­son sifts through hun­dreds of hours of vin­tage filmsThey Shall Not Grow OldSun­day / BBC2 / 9.30Pm

re­stored: Mod­ern tech­nol­ogy brings the sol­diers to life

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