The film has been colourised to give more vibrancy to the imagery
There is one particular soldier in Sir Peter Jackson’s unique documentary about the First World War who to this day haunts the director of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy.
“There is a man whose face I can’t forget,” says Sir Peter, 56, speaking from his home in New Zealand. “It’s the face of a man who looks like a real character and reminds me of a lot of people. He’s the dry, comic guy who doesn’t smile at his own jokes.
“In the clip, he is among a group of soldiers and he is juggling a beer bottle while someone plays a tune on a mouth organ. When he drops the bottle on the ground, he picks it up, and starts to play it like it’s a guitar.
“I’ve always wondered who he was. And you can’t help but wonder: did he survive the war or did he die the following day? I hope he went on to have a happy life and children, and to enjoy himself…”
Who were these brave heroes? Do you know?
He trails off, moved at the unlikelihood of this scenario given the terrible death toll of a conflict in which many soldiers were conscripts sent into the killing fields of the Western Front armed with inadequate equipment.
The First World War has obsessed Sir Peter since he was a child growing up in New Zealand as the grandson of a veteran who fought in the conflict and survived until 1940 despite being wounded at the Somme.
Meanwhile Sir Peter’s great uncle, who served with the Monmouthshire Regiment, was killed in the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915.
“My paternal grandfather was wounded by a German machine gun on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and came back to England to recover,” he explains.
This was one of the original photographs that Sir Peter Jackson and his team worked on
“While there, he met my grandmother and married her in 1917. So to some degree I do owe my existence to a German machine gunner, which gives me a slightly conflicted view of the conflict.”
As the years went by Sir Peter found he wanted to draw closer to a conflict that had such a pivotal role in enabling his own birth.
Helped by a personal fortune estimated at £300million, he invested in a private collection of seven First World War aeroplanes, including several replicas that he commissioned.
And several years ago he began working on his remarkable project to bring the conflict and its men to life using digital technology pioneered by his production company WingNut Films.
And this is the result after they transformed it
His intensely moving First World War documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old – which takes its name from the Laurence Binyon poem For The Fallen – will be released nationwide for one night only this month as we approach the centenary of the end of the Great War.
The BBC will screen it at some point before Armistice Day.
This feature-length documentary – his first film since the last in The Hobbit series four years ago – quickly became a labour of love for the director.
“It’s a very personal project for me,” he says. “I was lucky to have access to the full First World War film archive from the Imperial War Museum, and to more than 600 hours of BBC audio interviews with veterans.”
More of the heroes who served their King and country
It has taken him several years to craft the footage, which he assessed in forensic detail, into a film that reaches a crescendo with a terrifying 20-minute combat section, created by weaving the original footage into a dramatic narrative with the sort of digital special effects that are his trademark.
But it is the immediacy of the digitally enhanced film stock that creates the most astonishing effect.
The footage has been colourised, slowed down to normal time and converted to 3D (2D in some cinemas).
This makes it incredibly involving, as if it had been filmed just yesterday using modern cameras.
“We are used to seeing original footage from the war in jerky, speeded up black and white, like a Charlie Chaplin film,” says Sir Peter. “What we have done is restore these films beyond what you could ever imagine and given it a modern message. What comes alive are the human beings – their humanity rises out of the footage.”
The realistic skin tones he has managed to conjure up from the original black and white footage creates an astonishing intimacy that rebirths as real, men trapped in time.
For Sir Peter, this process proved addictive. As well as enhancing the 90 minutes of footage he chose to use in his film, he and his team have worked tirelessly to transform and colourise the entire 80 hours of material he was sent by the Imperial War Museum.
“I couldn’t stop restoring the footage and bringing everyone to life,” he says. “This was never part of the deal but it is our donation to the centenary. It was a crazy thing. In their downtime I had everyone in the company doing it, and we are still restoring it.”
They shall not grow old… as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them
Sir Peter’s First World War obsession has been incubating ever since his father started avidly buying books on the conflict.
“I grew up in the 1960s in a fairly small town in New Zealand and although back then there weren’t all that many books coming out about the war my dad would buy them all and gradually our bookshelf filled up.
“But what I particularly remember were the old boys coughing on a park bench who’d been gassed during the conflict and whom you always had to call ‘uncle’ even though they weren’t.”
Sir Peter became increasingly absorbed by this human side of the war, something that reached its zenith as he experienced the conflict through the men he was meeting on camera and in the audio files he used in the making of his film. What has surprised him most is the lack of self-pity shown by men who never expected to go to war.
“We all have a clichéd idea of what the war was but we don’t realise the humour and comedy the men found during the worst of times,” he insists.
“For many, it was clear it had been the best experience of their lives; a chance for adventure and for fun. Of course the war was also a hellish experience but they don’t pity themselves.
“What I wanted to do was capture this real human experience. The film contains no specifics of the history of war – there is no mention of Passchendaele or Flanders. There are no dates. Instead we have relied on the soldiers to tell us what it was like to be a human being at that time: the food they ate, their friendships and yes, their fears.”
• They Shall Not Grow Old has been co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW and Imperial War Museums in association with the BBC. It will premiere at the BFI London Film Festival and be in cinemas nationwide for one night only on October 16. To book tickets go to theyshallnotgrowold.film
Are you related to any of these men?
Sir Peter Jackson is asking Daily Express readers to get in touch if they recognise any of the men in the photographs on this page, or the names of the men below whose recollections form the audio track to They Shall Not Grow Old, his new documentary about the First World War.
“We have selected some of the faces we are most drawn to,” says Sir Peter. “We have wondered since the start of the project who they are, what they did – did they survive and what became of them if so? As I went through all the footage I was always looking for my grandfather, who fought with the 2nd Battalion, South Wales Borderers. I had a hope I would see him but I never did.
“But I have no doubt that we have seen the grandfathers or great-grandfathers of some of your readers. It would be great to make them aware of this and find out more about their stories.” l If you recognise any name or face published here, please email email@example.com
John Ashby served in the Middlesex Regiment in 1917-18 before being captured.
Edwin Bigwood was born in Bristol and served with the 7th Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment from 1916.
Horace Calvert, who hailed from the Bradford area, served in France with the Grenadier Guards.
Charles Edmund Carrington was an officer who served in France with the Warwickshire Regiment between 1915 and 1917.
Henry Carter served in France with the Royal Fusiliers from 1916.
Walter Cook was a stretcher bearer with the Royal Army Medical Corps from 1915. He served in a variety of capacities until the end of the Second World War.
William Arthur Gillman, who was from the Leytonstone area of Essex, served on the Western Front with the London Regiment in 1918.
Walter Ernest “Josh” Grover, from Folkestone, enlisted in 1916, serving in France with the Sussex Regiment until the war ended. He served in the Army of Occupation in Cologne before being demobilised in 1919.
Frederick Plimmer worked in Barrow-in-Furness before enlisting and serving on the Western Front with the Machine Gun Corps in 1918.
Charles Robert Quinnell served in France with the Royal Fusiliers until he was wounded in 1916 and subsequently had to have a leg amputated.
Richard Henry Tobin served with the Hood Battalion, Royal Naval Division, on the Western Front between 1916 and 1918.