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Peter Jackson's WWI film is a portal into the past

By transforming 100-year-old celluloid footage, Peter Jackson has created a World War I film like no other.

New Zealand has benefitted much from Sir Peter Jackson’s enthusiasm for all things World War One during its centennial with the museum exhibitions mounted by his companies. He’s unpacked an impressive toybox for us in the last few years, one which already contained a collection of full-size replica WWI biplanes.

Now, at long last, he’s delivered an actual WWI movie —and “actual” is the word. As the end credits say: “Filmed on location on the Western Front 1914-1918.”

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

They Shall Not Grow Old is a project commissioned by British WWI centennial arts organisation 14-18 NOW, the Imperial War Museum and the BBC. It uses the museum and the broadcaster’s film and sound archives — period footage along with the frank oral histories from now-dead, mostly UK veterans giving their personal accounts of life in the trenches.

Jackson has taken the monotone silent jerky celluloid and waved his 3D digital magic wand over it. The effect, which arrives 20 minutes in is startling. As a square of grainy black and white in the screen’s centre expands to the edges, it also blooms into colour and atmospheric sound. Past and present meet somewhere in the middle. The shots of tired troops smiling and nervously fidgeting for the hand-cranked camera become individual characters.

If, like me, you had grandfathers (one Scottish, one New Zealander) or other relatives on the Western Front, you start searching for family resemblances among the crowds. Soon you are shown, like no drama has really managed, what being there was like. It makes the war a place as much as a period.

Before Peter Jackson works his magic.

The film is most about how that felt, eschewing the when, what or why of the war. It’s non-specific and British and Empire-only in its history. It covers the four years in one story arc with the voice-over anecdotes telling of the initial excitement of signing up, the harsh realities of training, shipping out, then finding yourself in a muddy hole combating lice, rats, gas, dysentery, trench-foot, trench-fever, frostbite, the stench of death and, occasionally, the enemy a rifle shot away. The film doesn’t flinch from showing the carnage. You have to feel for the colourists whose job it was to shade the faces of the dead and their fatal wounds.

The film climaxes with a supposed raid into German lines, where the footage gives way to something akin to comic book illustrations of grim hand-to-hand fighting. The artwork briefly breaks the spell woven earlier.

The colourised footage returns until the Armistice, then fades back to black and white as the troops return to a civilian life where, they say, no-one much cared about what they had been through.

While the visual treatment is wondrous, it’s the sound — especially the background murmurs of conversation lip-synched to the footage — that completes the illusion and makes this so immersive.

After.

Here, of course, we’ll be looking and listening for New Zealanders. There are some, judging by the hat shapes in a shot or two. Also, you’ll never guess what colour or what national emblem is on the shirts of one of the teams in a behind-the-lines rugby game, seen in the briefest of shots.

This might be seen as Jackson and co wielding the digital toolboxes they’ve developed in two Middle-earth trilogies, whose original writer, J.R.R. Tolkien, was a British army officer during the conflict.

Jackson’s gift for creating an illusion through cinematic trickery dates back earlier to 1995’s Forgotten Silver, an inspired bit of fakery about a faux pioneering New Zealand film-maker.

That film might have been a side project but it felt personal. So, despite its technical wizardry and its chorus of voices does They Shall Not Grow Old. Jackson dedicates it to a grandfather he never knew, William Jackson, a professional soldier in the British army at the outbreak of WWI who fought at Gallipoli and on the Western Front.

His grandson’s film is something of miracle, and not just because he’s kept an entire world war to a feature-length 100 minutes rather than a six-hour trilogy. For the most part, it really does feel like a portal into the past — and a way to give grandad a wave.

IN CINEMAS FOR A LIMITED SEASON FROM NOVEMBER 11

★★★★★