Taylor Downing reports on Peter Jackson’s new WWI centenary film.
New Zealander Peter Jackson is known to cinema-goers for the lavish spectacles in which he specialises in breathtaking digital effects, including The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) and The Hobbit trilogy (2012-14), both adapted from the novels of J R R Tolkien.
He has now just released a remarkable 90-minute documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, in which he and his team have used extraordinary digital technology to both colourise and turn into 3D authentic First World War archive film, mostly from the Imperial War Museum.
The effect is a stunning exploration of life in the trenches, from the dull drudgery of everyday existence to the sheer terror of an artillery bombardment and going over the top. Aficionados of the Great War will be amazed to see the visual and audio trench experience he has created. One hundred years on, They Shall Not Grow Old is a fitting commemoration of the lives of those who fought in this most bloody of conflicts.
Jackson’s paternal grandfather fought on the Western Front and was wounded by a German machine-gunner on the first day of the battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. He was taken back to a hospital in England, where he recovered. In his youth, Jackson became obsessed with the Great War and read widely on the subject.
Jackson is also an aviation enthusiast who owns a set of First World War replica aircra . He has been planning to remake the legendary movie The Dam Busters (dir: Michael Anderson, 1955) for some years. Stephen Fry has written a new script, and ten large models have been built of the Lancasters of 617 Squadron. But other projects have got in the way and production has been repeatedly put on hold over the last decade.
They Shall Not Grow Old brings together Jackson’s various obsessions. What interests him is not the chronology of the Great War, or the narratives of the epic battles that define the war, like those of the Somme and Ypres, but the human story of the men who fought in the war.
So Jackson’s documentary does not include dates or names of battles, and there is no commentary. Instead, he uses interview material with First World War veterans to provide a voice for the long dead soldiers of the war.
Some of this was recorded by the BBC for use in their groundbreaking series, The Great War. Some is taken from the long-running oral history project in which curators from the Imperial War Museum conducted interviews with hundreds of veterans from the 1960s to the 2000s.
These IWM interviews were long, sometimes up to eight hours or so, conducted over two or three days so as not to exhaust the elderly veterans. They o en covered details of military life, like eating at the front, the constant task of maintaining and renewing the trenches, the camaraderie between the men, and so on, as well as the story of specific moments of action or trauma.
The title of the documentary comes from the famous Laurence Binyon poem, ‘For the Fallen’, which became a sort of universal tribute to those lost in the Great War. But the title has a specific meaning here: by colourising the black and white images, Jackson has metaphorically brought the men back to life.
OLD FOOTAGE, NEW TWISTSThe documentary begins and ends with black and white archive film inset in a frame inside the screen. Curiously, despite all the effects, he has chosen to run this footage at the wrong speed and has not slowed it down from 18 frames per second, as it was shot, to 24 fps as it is usually run today.
The system for doing this was pioneered more than 50 years ago and is today a very simple process. The result is that men strut and march in a comic fashion. I found this very disconcerting and a pretence that all old film looks scratchy and funny – which it certainly doesn’t.
The film begins with well-known stories of the declaration of war, the enthusiasm for joining up, exaggerating one’s age in order to be accepted, and of the discipline men discovered in army routine. After weeks of intense exercise and regular food, many soldiers from the most deprived areas of Britain had put on a stone in weight and had grown an inch in height.
Throughout the film, audio is as important as the visuals, and the documentary relies on the chorus of voices to portray the men’s reactions to what happens to them. There are surprises here with many veterans recalling that ‘I wouldn’t have missed it for the world’ and ‘I’ve never been so excited in my life.’
About 20 minutes in to what is turning out to be a pretty conventional account of recruitment and training for war in 1914-1915, the men depart for France. As they march towards the Western Front and approach the trenches, the documentary dramatically transitions into 3D colour.
As it is for the men, our first view of the trenches is breathtaking: expanses of mud, sandbags, barbed wire, and chaos. As well as the genuine archive film, photos are also turned into 3D and in places animated.
Men trail through zigzag trenches, constantly toil to maintain the defences, eat and sleep where they can, and even in the most extreme circumstances carry out the normal bodily functions of urinating and defecating.
The film is constantly punctuated with Bruce Bairnsfather’s Old Bill cartoons, and humour is never far away. Lipreaders have studied the original film and picked out what the men are saying. We repeatedly see laughing and joking in front of the camera. ‘Smile! You’re in the pictures,’ one man tells his mates. This is in line with contemporary accounts.
Cameraman Geoffrey Malins, who shot much of the Battle of the Somme film, recounted that every time he set up his camera the men would cheer and wave. The big close-ups of men’s beaming faces also reveal the dreadful state of dental health 100 years ago, something that is rarely depicted in modern dramas.
And throughout there is the roar of the guns, recreated very powerfully. With modern audio effects, the crashing sound of incoming shells is truly terrifying. And the carumph of the British artillery fire is equally impressive. At one point, a field howitzer fires and creates such a bang that the slate tiles on a nearby farmhouse fall off the roof!
While trench life is boring for some, it becomes dreadful for others. The colourised images of men suffering from trench foot is gruesome. ‘There was no choice but to hack their legs off.’ And everywhere there are corpses – horribly mutilated, lying in terrible shapes, acting as props for trench supports, and a hand emerging from the mud. Dead horses are ever present, the poor dumb victims of war.
Slowly, the pace of the film hastens. A trench raid returns with prisoners. ‘It was the first time I saw a German,’ says one veteran, and it is the first time we see Germans in their field grey. And they are a pitiable bunch – not the demonic super men that British propaganda had made them into.
Finally, there is the build up to ‘the Push’. The guns roar and thunder. Anxious faces stare out at us. Then the moment comes when the offi cers blow their whistles and the men go over the top. At this point the documentary fades to black.
OVER THE TOP
There is no authentic film record of what happened next. It was impossible to film using the heavy and cumbersome cameras of the day. Unlike most documentaries that easily slide into the use of staged feature-film footage, Jackson is more honest.
He evokes the inferno of battle by using dramatic drawings from War Illustrated and contrasts images of corpses piling up, each one stained blood red, with the smiling, innocent faces of the men before battle. ‘My romantic ideals of war soon vanished,’ recalls one veteran.
The wounded come in and again the colour creates a truly shocking effect of the bloody horror of war. The bodies are piled so thick in places that survivors have to walk over them. One veteran weeps as he recounts finding a man so horribly wounded that he shot him to end his suffering.
Although other veterans describe how they occasionally killed prisoners trying to surrender, the pictures show Tommies joking with Fritz, exchanging helmets and cigarettes. This was the version of events preferred on the home front.
Finally, the fighting winds down, an Armistice is signed, and on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day, the guns stop firing. The audio quietens to silence. There are no celebrations in the trenches; just relief at having survived.
The documentary returns to black and white and Jackson ends with soldiers returning to civilian life but finding that no one could really understand what they had been through. ‘We were a race apart,’ remembers one vet. No one wanted to talk about it anymore.
At the time of writing, detailed information about the technical effects used by Jackson and his team has not been revealed. But it is clear that authentic 35mm film images have been used in a variety of ways. Some are shown as they were shot but turned into 3D colour. Others have had details, often of faces, extracted from them.
The famous Sunken Road shots of the Lancashire Fusiliers waiting to go over the top in the morning of 1 July 1916 taken by Geoffrey Malins have been used to draw out the anxiety that preceded battle.
Elsewhere, landscape shots taken today have been matted in to create depth. The long lists of compositors, foley artists, and AVR technicians in the credits bear witness to the huge pool of talent drawn upon.
Overall, They Shall Not Grow Old tells a conventional story of the First World War in an entirely new and modern format. The voices of the veterans, the horror of the scenes men faced, the terrific thunder of the guns, the blood and gore of corpses piling up, are all conveyed as though in a feature film.
Some people will react against this, seeing it as a distortion of the use of real images. But it will be a hard-hearted viewer who is not moved by this impression of trench life. Peter Jackson is to be wholeheartedly congratulated for bringing the creativity he has developed in presenting fiction on the big screen to this novel treatment of the Great War.
This is an extract from a review in the December issue of Military History Monthly.
To read the full analysis, get a copy of the issue from your local W H Smith, or click here to subscribe to the magazine and have it sent straight to your door every month.