“There was no feeling sorry for themselves”: director Peter Jackson on the soldiers of the First World War

Film director Peter Jackson speaks to History Extra about his latest film They Shall Not Grow Old – a documentary about the First World War that uses never-before-seen footage of the conflict that devastated the world between 1914 and 1918...

A scene from 'They Shall Not Grow Old', showing how film director Peter Jackson digitally remastered footage of the First World War. (Photo courtesy of THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD/ WingNut Films/ Peter Jackson. Original black and white film © IWM)

“It was their lack of self-pity that surprised me,” says Peter Jackson, who listened to more than 600 hours of interviews featuring First World War veterans while making his latest film They Shall Not Grow Old. “We look on these guys with an enormous sort of pity now. We think that we sent these men into this industrial grinding machine. But they certainly didn’t think that was what was happening to them – there was no feeling sorry for themselves.”

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Jackson, the Academy Award-winning director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, has spent the last four years immersed in Imperial War Museums’ extensive archives, discovering never-before-seen footage of the First World War. Using modern production techniques, he painstakingly coloured and digitised the black-and-white footage, combining it with first-person audio from the BBC to create a unique insight into the conflict that devastated the world between 1914 and 1918. The resulting film – titled They Shall Not Grow Old after Laurence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen  – premieres in London next week.

“You’re not going to learn anything about the First World War from a greater view,” he tells the History Extra podcast. “But you’ll learn how the soldiers felt – and you might be surprised.”

The process of digital colourising is not without its detractors. In 1988 the actor Jimmy Stewart – who was 80 years old at the time – flew to Washington to speak out against the “colourizing” of the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, in which he had played the starring role. “It’s morally and artistically wrong,” he reportedly said at the time.

The technology used to colourise has undoubtedly improved since then – but the debate over the integrity of the process remains. For Jackson, however, the use of colour was a way of establishing greater historical accuracy in his latest film. By adding colour and slowing the down the speed of the footage, the audience can view the war as the soldiers would have seen it, he says.

I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world

“[The men] saw a war in colour, they certainly didn’t see it in black and white,” he explains. “I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world, so they can regain their humanity once more – rather than be seen only as Charlie Chaplin-type figures in the vintage archive film.”

The film is undoubtedly a passion project for Jackson, who has had a life-long interest in the First World War. “I grew up with my dad telling me stories about his father, my grandfather,” he says. “In a funny way, I am also a child of the First World War. My dad emigrated to New Zealand, where he met my mum, because his father had admired how the soldiers fought.”

They Shall Not Grow Old is dedicated to Jackson’s grandfather, who died in the 1940s. Although Jackson’s family does not feature in the film, the colourised documentary nonetheless feels intensely personal for the director. “I liked doing this movie because it was about the common experience of the soldier,” he explains. “I felt that I was learning about what my grandfather went through.”

They Shall Not Grow Old: Before and after

THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD/ WingNut Films/ Peter Jackson. Original black and white film © IWM
Original footage, used in the film ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’. (Photo courtesy of THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD/ WingNut Films/ Peter Jackson. Original black and white film © IWM)
THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD/ WingNut Films/ Peter Jackson. Original black and white film © IWM
Remastered footage, used in the film ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’. (Photo courtesy of THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD/ WingNut Films/ Peter Jackson. Original black and white film © IWM)

They Shall Not Grow Old was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum and the 14-18 NOW project to commemorate the centenary of Armistice Day. It premiered in cinemas on Tuesday 16 October. 

The documentary will debut on Blu-ray and DVD from Monday 10 December and will also be available via digital download. A special 30-minute Q&A with Peter Jackson will feature on both the Blu-ray and DVD releases.

Listen to our full interview with Peter Jackson on the History Extra podcast, available now.

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This article was first published on History Extra in October 2018