Peter Jackson brings the awe to World War I with “They Shall Not Grow Old.”
But the Oscar-winning director (“The Lord of the Rings”) opens the film with traditional black-and-white footage depicting the prelude to the global conflict that ended a century ago.
As the war breaks out, Jackson propels the viewer directly into the battle. The first unforgettable scene pulls in close – in color and in 3D – on a young soldier, with exploding shells around him and thick mud sloshing beneath his feet. Yet he’s wide-eyed at the camera recording him.
“It’s that kid staring, he’s maybe 15,” says Jackson. “He’s on the Western front, and he’s just transfixed by the camera. I want to know his name and his life story.”
It’s these visceral responses that the filmmaker hoped to invoke by putting his renowned technical prowess, his passion and four years of painstaking work into ” “TSNGO” (playing in theaters nationwide with Fathom Events Dec. 17 and 27).
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The New Zealand born Jackson, 57, was already fascinated with the war that his British grandfather, Sgt. William Jackson (to whom he dedicated the film) fought in. He died 20 years before Jackson was born, leaving no personal account of his experience.
“I have the historical account, He was wounded the first day of the Battle of the Somme and other times. I know where he fought. But I was missing the human element,” says Jackson.
When Jackson was approached by the London’s Imperial War Museum to make a film using 2,700 hours of grainy, faded footage, he jumped in. The footage was repaired and realistically colorized, with seat-rattling sound added to every explosion.
“I wanted the film to look like what the cameraman was seeing as he (was) filming that moment. He saw color, he saw it in 3D,” says Jackson.
Forensic lip readers were hired to determine what soldiers were saying onscreen, and speakers with the appropriate dialect added the words. Jackson procured 600 hours of BBC interviews from 200 soldiers documenting daily life during the war.
“It struck me, listening to all of these interviews, the experiences were so similar,” says Jackson. “They talk about the food, the sleeping and the shelling, the rats and the lice and the latrines. You realize they all went through the same war experiences. It gave me insight into my grandfather’s.”
There are horrifying depictions of infesting rats, a trench menace, and the film captures rare battle scenes including one in which an exploding shell kills a soldier and his horse.
But the film truly succeeds in illuminating the travails, moments of laughter and even the eyes of the men, who stare back at a movie camera for the first time in their lives (yes, they say hi to their mums).
Jackson is still struck by the dramatic contrast in scenes captured near battle first-aid stations.
“The men are traumatized and with injuries, medics are trying to save their lives doing what they can. The camera is suddenly completely invisible,” he says. “That’s powerful stuff.”
Rather than end with mournful music, Jackson re-recorded the bawdy troop song “Mademoiselle from Armentieres.”