“This is not a story of the First World War, it is not a historical story, it may not even be entirely accurate but it’s the memories of the men who fought.”
That is what Peter Jackson, the filmmaker from New Zealand, said before the screening of his new film, ‘They Shall Not Grow Old,’ which he produced and directed.
This isn’t a war movie in any conventional sense. I suppose we should call it a documentary of sorts.
Jackson took 800 hours of silent archival film from the Imperial War Museum and other sources and distilled it into a one-hour and 39-minute presentation.
In some cases, he had lip readers produce the dialog, the actual words of the men spoken a hundred years ago.
Every other voice we hear comes from actual veterans who recorded their recollection years later. The restoration of the film and the lip reading of the soldiers as they spoke made for a huge project.
But Peter Jackson did even more. He used the most up to date techniques to colorize the film, to brighten it and bring the old brittle film to life.
He also inserted a sound track so that we hear the sounds of the life of the soldiers, their footsteps as well as their own words.
The result is emotionally shocking.
We watch the men as war breaks out going to the enlistment station. We see them learn how to stand in line, march and exercise. We see the soldiers, now taller and heavier after food and exercise a plenty in boot camp, as they take a tourist steamer to France.
And then the world turns to color and we see the war as the soldiers saw it. It makes a dramatic moment for us.
Jackson grants us some small but important measure of knowledge about the struggle, heartbreak and horror experienced by millions of men in The War to End All Wars.
At the completion of the film, Jackson comes on to explain how he made the movie.
In one segment, he personally went to a sunken road in Belgium where a scene in the movie was shot a hundred years ago with a hand-cranked movie camera. The shot showed soldiers in every stage of terror before going in to the attack.
In the next 30 minutes of real time nearly every man in the scene had lost his life. Nothing I have seen or read about the Great War has had that kind of emotional impact.
Peter Jackson has made wonderful films with the “Lord of the Rings” series and the Hobbit films. He also made “The Lovely Bones,” an entirely different kind of movie, which garnered three Oscar nominations. He has fostered a film industry in New Zealand. Now the small, far away nation, ranks far above its size in movie making importance.
This incredible and unique documentary carries a strong R for content, dead bodies and the harsh life in the trenches. The five saw blade film runs for 99 minutes.
Jackson wanted to have “Mademoiselle From Armentieres” as the song for the closing credits. But he couldn’t have New Zealanders sing the song because their accents are different from their British cousins. He solved the problem by enlisting English singers from among the British diplomats stationed in New Zealand. That is dedication to authenticity in filmmaking.