Dir: Peter Jackson | Doc | UK | 99′
The Lord of the Rings director, Peter Jackson shows what it was like to be a solider fighting in the trenches in the First World War where 1 million men lost their lives between 1914-18). Jackson’s New Zealand-based Weta special-effects house uses 3D film and combines cutting edge special effects with archive footage that actually comes to life offering a first hand experience of the trenches, the gunfire, the mud and the death. (courtesy of ).It’s a colossal achievement and fascinating in its down to earth detail.
Sifting through 600 hours of archive footage collated from Imperial War Museums, and overlaying a voiceover of actual testimonies of veterans, also from Imperial War Museums, recorded in the 1960s and 1970s, Jackson puts us in the thick of it with an in-depth start to finish experience of what actually happened when war was declared on Germany in 1914. He describes not only the excitement and sense of duty, but also the banality of fighting for youngsters who returned to Britain on the train to Victoria Station, when the ‘guns suddenly ceased”. And not as heroes, but as unemployed, unemployable often broken men. The Great War has been much romanticised in novels and poetry. Here, Jackson takes the romantic image out of the equation, and gives us a gruelling but also shocking images of mass latrines, open wounds, eviscerated bodies. The stench, but also the pity of war, and the camaraderie too. One soldier reminisces: “it was like a camping holiday with the boys, only with a spice of danger”; another: “the Germans were decent family men, and their loved their kids”.
Jackson shows us how the soldiers made tea from the hot water that cooled their machine guns, and how they got tired of endless plum and apple jam. There are clips of British soldiers enlisting in 1914, of soldiers training, and then boarding decommissioned “pleasure boats” to France where they were offered bottles of wine and raided the fields for carrots. And it’s inclusive – we see Indian soldiers marching in turbans, along with the British platoons.
Jackson’s 3D film feels smooth and non-jerky as it yields up its superbly restored coloured treasures. The voiceover is achieved through lip-read recreated dialogue as the soldiers literally come alive to tell their own story, their faces demonstrating at first hand the smiles, the fear and even the mistrust.
There are naturally elements missing such as footage of the actual battles due to the difficulty of transporting the heavy photographic equipment to the scene. The guns were moved by horses, who sadly often sank into the “viscous” mud. But Jackson takes us there amongst the soldiers in the fray – and we feel for them. It’s a heart-breaking endeavour but infinitely worthwhile. If you only watch one film this year, watch this one. MT
Peter Jackson’s THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD will be released in cinemas nationwide, from 9th November with a special pre-recorded Q&A with Peter Jackson (3D and 2D). It will then premiere on Armistice Day (Sunday 11th Nov) on BBC Two at 9.30pm and will be released on home entertainment platforms later this year.