Image: Imperial War Museum

Sir Peter Jackson’s haunting WWI masterpiece

One hundred years to the day from the end of WWI, Sir Peter Jackson has released They Shall Not Grow Old, a groundbreaking restoration of footage from The Great War. 

“The first world war is still being fought,” says Sir Peter Jackson, 100 years to the day since the closing shots on the Western Front. “It could have been avoided if people had been smart in 1919 but they weren’t, and so it’s still waging today.”

Jackson has spent the past decade immersed in the four years from 1914-1918, when millions of men took up arms in a war that ended innocence and changed forever the id of Europe. Today he released They Shall Not Grow Old, a masterpiece of historical documentary, and a promising harbinger for the future of film restoration.

The film, edited down from more than 100 hours of clippings from the Imperial War Museum in London, is a haunting portrait of the final days of the British empire. A sloppy assassination far to the east sets off a chain reaction that brutalises humanity with mechanised warfare, setting the stage for 100 years of conflict and geopolitical shifts. They Shall Not Grow Old makes no attempt to say answer the why, because to Jackson, there doesn’t seem to be one.

“I was often thinking as I was looking at this footage of these guys that virtually none of these soldiers could have told you why they were actually fighting or what they were fighting for,” says Jackson.

Instead the clippings and narration, taken entirely from wartime diary entries, paints a vignette of England at war in the early 20th century. The ‘refuse’ from an industrialised society, all rotten teeth and limey smiles, are signed up in their millions, provincial lads with antiquated ideas of cavalry charges and glorious combat. They didn’t – couldn’t – predict the carnage modern weaponry would wreak on the human body and brain. And all of it for nothing.

Crosses in the Fields of Remembrance during Armistice Day commemorations on November 11, 2018 in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: Dave Rowland/Getty Images

“All these empires had armed themselves so heavily without having a clue how to actually wage war with all this modern destructive technology that they were furiously building, and it was sort of an inevitable war because they were arming up so fast,” says Jackson. “It was a real arms race. At some point it was going to ignite no matter what the reason was. They soon found out what all this modern equipment did to human beings. It was the end of the age of empire. That’s really it. But it wasn’t about anything in particular.”

In 1914 being filmed was a novel experience for most of the men, says Jackson. Much of the footage then has soldiers staring directly down the lens, mugging and laughing and carrying themselves with a naive innocence, all the more haunting in light of the mud and death that awaits them. It feels like the men are looking back at you.

“You can divide the 100 hours into two groups,” says Jackson. “One is a group where the soldiers are not under any jeopardy or danger and the cameraman draws their attention all the time. As you see in some of the shots when the soldiers realise they’re being filmed they just freeze. You can see this whole thing about these soldiers not really understanding what they should do in front of a camera. Then there’s the footage where the camera is utterly invisible.”

Positioned at the forward medical bases, cameramen would capture the shattered and bloody bodies of the men returning from the trenches. There are no smiles here. Nobody looks to the camera. The troops are enthralled in the horror of war.

“People are in pain and misery and stress and to me that’s the most powerful footage that exists of the first world war,” says Jackson.”That’s the stuff where it does feel like you’re looking at the real thing. These guys are not aware of the camera, and they’re not in too good of a shape.”

The films painstaking colourisation is masterful, giving a sense of reality to the men in fatigues and field grey uniforms. The restoration brings solidity to the characters, along with a nauseating sense of almost piteous nostalgia. The eerie quality of the footage is punctuated with all too human expressions of terror and dread. The men feel alive, young, at breaking point and in very real and immediate danger.   

“Just before the real combat starts there’s a shot of a group of soldiers sitting in a sunken road,” says Jackson. “The footage was shot from about 7.05 to 7.10 in the morning. Those guys go over at 7.30 and just about all of them are killed. The Lancashire fusiliers were almost entirely wiped out. So you’re looking at guys who were in the last twenty minutes of their lives and I find that footage really…” he trails off,

“Some of them are trying to act like they don’t really care but some of them look utterly, utterly terrified, and rightly so. For a lot of them it’s going to be their first time and a lot of them aren’t going to survive it, so you can see in their faces the horror.”

The men who survive return home from a war too brutal to comprehend, too alien to talk about. Their reference points are disparate, the mud and the rain and the death stained forever into their psyche. Less than 25 years later, it happened all over again.


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