A new documentary film by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson brings the soldiers in the First World War to life to commemorate the centenary of the Armistice.
The First World War was the first major conflict after the invention of film cameras. To mark the centenary of the end of the War on 11 November 1918, Britain’s Imperial War Museum asked Peter Jackson to create a new film using the original archive footage, and social history interviews with soldiers who served in the War carried out in the 1960s and ’70s. The film, They Shall Not Grow Old, which was originally planned as a 30-minute short, developed into a full-length feature film, focused on the British infantry on the Western Front in France and Belgium.
Jackson didn’t film any scenes. Using modern techniques, his team transformed the old, black-and-white silent films, colourising them and adding sound. Actors read excerpts from the soldiers’ interviews in voiceover. Jackson also asked lip-readers to try to understand what the soldiers in the films were saying. These words were added too. And a 3D version of the film was also created.
The result is amazing. The soldiers appear incredibly real. You have the impression you could touch them and talk to them. As Jackson says, “They didn’t see the war in black and white. They saw the war in colour.”
The restoration is so impressive that Jackson says, “I’m hoping that people will come forward and actually name some of the people that have been filmed. At the moment the people on the film have no names at all but I’d love to find out the stories of some of them.”
A human element that impressed Jackson was the scenes of German prisoners helping in First Aid posts: “I’ve seen photographs of German prisoners helping wounded British guys so I was aware on one level that this happened but we found so much film of the Germans essentially pitching in trying to save the lives of whoever it was.”
Jackson has a personal interest in WWI: his grandfather was a professional soldier who served with the South Wales Borderers from 1910 to 1919, including the whole of WWI: Gallipoli, the Somme and Passchendaele. He was wounded several times and received the Distinguished Service Medal. He survived the war but died at age 50 from health problems sustained during his service.
The film was originally supposed to show in British cinemas for one night only, on 15 October, before being broadcast by the BBC on 11 November. But the reaction to the film has been so positive that the original screenings sold out and the film’s distributors are planning a general release.
The film’s title is from a poem, “For the Fallen” which is often recited at Remembrance ceremonies on 11 November, especially in the Commonwealth countries which fought in the War as part of the British Empire.
The poem was written by Laurence Binyon, a poet and archivist at the British Museum. In 1915, he was 45, too old to be a soldier, but he volunteered to help in the hospitals on the front in France.
Binyon said that the lines of the fourth stanza came to him first, and they have become the most famous:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
You’ll find the full poem and background here.
Find more of heroism in wartime in Speakeasy Files 3e: including the remembrance, soldiers, trench life, propaganda and women and children’s experience or war.
And don’t miss our A2+ and B2 resources around Jackson’s film.
Wing Nut Films/IWM
> Remembering British WWI Soldiers
> In the Trenches
> They Shall not Grow Old Film: Bringing WWI to Life