Peter Jackson directing a WW1 film has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
The 'Lord of The Rings' director says he hopes his film reconnects younger people with their history
Growing up as an only child in New Zealand, director Peter Jackson recalls that “there wasn’t a lot of World War 1 stuff around, but I remember asking my dad about his father who had served in the war”.
When Jackson went on to become a filmmaker – directing the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, among other projects – he retained his interest in World War 1 (WW1), collecting books and militaria and visiting the battlefields of the Western Front. But he says he “had no ambition to make a WW1 film because I had this sort of interest in it that was separate from my day job of filmmaking”.
“I never really had any intention to be honest in making a fictional WW1 film. My interest in it was something to amuse myself with on weekends that had nothing to do with film; to break away from the pressures of my job.”
That all changed though in 2014 when Jackson was approached by the Imperial War Museum in London to make a documentary as part of this year’s centenary commemoration of the end of the war. Jackson says “their only condition was that I had to use their original film archive, and they said they wanted it to be used in a fresh and original way. At the time I didn’t have a clue what that might be.”
Jackson and his team spent five months trying to figure out the best method of restoring more than 100 hours of film shot during the war and eventually managed to colour and restore three or four minutes of footage. When Jackson saw the results, he felt that “it was so much better than I ever thought it would be”.
It took a further two years to restore the 100 hours of film, but Jackson admits: “I couldn’t have had a vision for this film without first figuring out what I was going to do with the footage. I wanted to see as much as I could because the film had to come out of the footage, and I couldn’t imagine something in my head that there was no footage from.”
The resulting film, They Shall Not Grow Old (its title taken from a poem by Laurence Binyon), is not only a great feat of technological achievement but a moving and impactful portrait of the lives of ordinary soldiers on the Western Front, told in their voices and covering everything from eating and toilet habits to trench foot and of course death – all brought to life in vivid colour, sound and fury.
The interviews that make up the film were culled from 600 hours of audio recorded in the 1960s and 1970s by the BBC. There are no longer survivors of the conflict, but Jackson points out: “In New Zealand there’s a turtle that a Gallipoli soldier brought back, and he’s 120 years old, and I think he’s probably the only official survivor of WW1.”
Back on the subject of the film, Jackson realised while watching the footage that what stuck out “were the faces of the men – they became human beings again because now you’re seeing them in normal speed and colour – and that was the moment that something became obvious to me and that was that the only voices we should hear in the film should be theirs”.
What became apparent to Jackson while listening to the 600 hours of recordings, representing some 250 individual soldiers’ stories, was “that even though they were in different parts of the war and some of them were wounded, they all talked about common things. They were talking about the minutiae and the detail of being soldiers, not the big picture and that really appealed to me.”
The picture that emerged from these oral histories was one of the war “as a very shared, common experience, and I thought, well, that’s what this film should be – a very straightforward, nonpolitical, no point-of-view from me – it should be these soldiers telling us what it was like to be an infantryman on Western Front”.
Jackson also found that while making the film, there was a personal aspect to the experience because he “never met my grandfather, and I have no diaries or letters so there’s been a bit of a vacuum”.
“While listening to those 600 hours, I was thinking this is how my grandfather fought and experienced this war, and so it was great way, in a quiet way, to just think about him and get a lot more of an insight into what his life might have been like during those years.”
The film screened on Armistice Day in the UK and Jackson hopes “young people who see it will ask their parents and their grandparents: ‘Did we have somebody in our family who was in the war?’ because that’s a question I don’t really think young people ask anymore.”
Like his father did for him when he was young and curious about his grandfather’s experience, Jackson hopes the film will see “some old photos getting pulled out of boxes and stories told of relatives who served in the war”.
“I hope it inspires a reconnection of family – of younger people with older relatives who know about the war, because key to the commemoration of the war is that it has to be personal, it can’t just be a statistical figure or concept.”
As the stanza from Binyon’s poem For The Fallen reads:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them
With the life that Jackson has breathed back into the doomed, brave men of his film it will be long before we ever forget them.
They Shall Not Grow Old is currently showing at Cinema Nouveaus at Rosebank, Brooklyn, V&A and Gateway.