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…
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…
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.’
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