First World War footage 'brought to life' in Peter Jackson's film They Shall Not Grow Old

Footage courtesy of 'They Shall Not Grow Old'/ WingNut Films/ Peter Jackson. Original black and white film © IWM.

A hundred years on, 'Lord Of the Rings' director Sir Peter Jackson has seen footage of a mine explosion that his own grandfather was only a hundred yards away from on the Western Front at the time.

He saw the footage while making his new film 'They Shall Not Grow Old'.

The Oscar-winning director has breathed life into original First World War footage for the documentary that shares real stories of veterans who lived through the 1914-18 conflict.

Sir Jackson and his team colourised and restored the footage from the archives of the Imperial War Museum - most of which has never been seen before – to produce an incredible insight into what life was like during “the war to end all wars”.

'They suddenly become real human beings, they’re not Charlie Chaplin...They’re real people with all the nuances and subtleties of human beings.'

The documentary ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ is dedicated to Peter’s grandfather William John Jackson who fought in the conflict while serving in the 2nd Battalion South Wales Borderers - which later amalgamated with the Welsh Regiment to form the Royal Regiment of Wales.

In an interview with RATED, the director said he was aware throughout the making of the film that he was getting an insight into what his Grandfather’s experience may have been like.

“As I was going through the footage I was acutely aware that this must have been how he [Peter’s Grandfather] felt and these are the sort of sights that he was seeing.

"There is a mine explosion in one of the shots, a big mine goes up and my Grandfather was about 100 yards on the other side of the mine at that exact moment, so I think, well I’m actually looking at something my grandfather saw, you know the same thing, I’m actually seeing what he saw 100 years ago.”

The director and his team at WingNut Films listened to over 600 hours of audio interviews from veterans of the First World War and watched over 100 hours of footage to make the film in 2D and 3D, focusing on the experiences of men rather than strategies of war.

The original image vs the colourised artistic rendition (Picture: WingNut Films with Peter Jackson).
The footage is transformed from black and white to colour (Picture: WingNut Films with Peter Jackson).

“Looking at the restored footage the thing that jumps out at you are the people, you know the humanity, they suddenly become real human beings, they’re not Charlie Chaplin, sped-up jerky figures anymore, they’re real people with all the nuances and subtleties of human beings.

"So, therefore, it told me this should be a human story not a war story, in terms of strategies and tactics.”

Sir Jackson decided the only voices that should be heard throughout the documentary were those of veterans, he requested that the BBC and IWM send him interview recordings of men when they were still young.

“I said: 'don’t send me any audio from when the men are very old, I don’t want 80, 90-year-old men just send me audio that you would have done in the 1960s, 1970s'. If you were interviewed in the 1960s you weren’t much older than I am, quite young, so you know they’re not ancient old guys, they’re quite vibrant and their memories are pretty sharp.”

Footage courtesy of 'They Shall Not Grow Old'/ WingNut Films/ Peter Jackson. Original black and white film © IWM.

It was the “lack of self-pity” in the interviews that stood out for him: “We’ve imposed a lot of pity on them, we’ve imposed our own view of the First World War that we sent these guys to the meat grinder, the slaughter of the Western Front, that on one level is completely true, that’s not an inaccurate description but the soldiers themselves didn’t view it like that.

"The best quote that the one guy says, and it’s not just one guy, it’s very representative of all of them, I think it’s probably summed up the First World War in my mind now; ‘it was like an extended Boy Scout camp with a spice of danger thrown in just to liven things up a bit’ and that’s sort of how they felt about it.”

Restoring the footage was “painstaking and labour-intensive” said Matthew Lee, Head of Film at the Imperial War Museum:

Creating this film took over three years to create because there was so much work involved, says Mr Lee: “I can’t even calculate how much time and effort goes into this, there were hundreds and hundreds of films to look at, the amount of time you have to spend adjusting the colour the grading, the speed of the film, removing the blemishes, frame by frame rotoscoping, adding the colour it’s a huge job.”

A copy of the film will be sent to every secondary school in the UK, making the archives of the IWM accessible to younger generations and help them see what life was like for the soldiers. Mr Lee added:

“Sometimes you view battles in terms of statistics, in terms of the big moments, but actually this really gave a human dimension to the conflict, particularly by using the interviews from 'The Great War' series.

"You get a multiplicity of different perspectives from different people who did so many amazing things that I think actually it’s all these things combining that really bring home such a strong impression of how it was like to actually fight and be involved in the First World War."

'They Shall Not Grow Old' was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum and the 14-18 NOW campaign to commemorate the centenary of the First World War and will be shown in cinemas across the country on 16 October.

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