photographer, writer and creator

They Shall Not Grow Old | dir. Peter Jackson, 100th Anniversary of WWI armistice

In Flanders fields, the poppies blow…

In the new age of technology, what does that mean for history? The still-frame camera was invented in 1816 with origins tracing back centuries! The moving camera was refined and developed later in 1889. In the past 200 years, technology has advanced incredibly quickly in the quality and detail captured. Our small piece within the larger historical record will be able to be preserved so vividly for years to come, yet what happens when rapid advancement jumps too far ahead? Will we be able to preserve the first cameras, film reels, negatives and the like if the technology is antiquated? These are the questions posed alongside the fleeting importance of major global historical events as the world moves further into the 21st century leaving the previous century to be forgotten. We must not let that happen.

In honor of World War I’s 100th anniversary of armistice, director Peter Jackson breathes new life into film and materials on the brink of antiquity in his new documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old. Fathom Events and Warner Bros. Pictures partner with the Academy Award® winning director to bring the faces and voices of WWI back to life and to the big screen. Jackson utilizes state of the art technology from the BBC and Imperial War Museum to evoke empathic clarity to audiences worldwide by telling the story of those on the front lines in the Great War.

Straying from a traditional narration, this film hones in on piecing together multiple accounts into one visually and auditory experience directly from the soldiers themselves. Life on the front is explored through a personal firsthand accounts about daily life, the food they ate, their feelings on the conflict, the friends they made and more. 

Co-commissioned by 14-18 Now and Imperial War Museums in association with the BBC, Jackson was approached in 2015 for the project. The three year production involved sifting through 600 hours of audio and visual interviews from the BBC and IWM, as well as 100 hours of original film footage from the IWM to make the film. The interviews came from 200 veterans with audio from 120 of them being used in the film. World War I lasted from 1914-1918.

The most eerie part of this film is being able to hear what these men were saying. Professional lip readers were brought in to analyze film clips and decipher what these men were saying to the camera and Jackson then hired professional voice actors authentic to the region – detailing where that person was from based on their uniform, their battalion, and the region they most likely came from. You slowly understand that these stories you are being told are not scripted. They are very real thoughts and feelings from veteran soldiers. Sound on film was not fully developed until around 1923 and later. Jackson’s inclusion of voices, mud squishing, real canon fire are all incredibly heightening of this old footage. It bridges the gap and pulls 100 years closer to our own sense of the world in a beautifully poetic new way. 

Colorization is key in this film. It reintroduces you brutally and beautifully to a war that we often forget we were a part of. Black and white faded memories restored in vivid multicolor. The uniforms, machinery and miscellaneous items are not lost items in the world, which Jackson and his team used quite a bit for reference pieces to color the film correctly. From a technical photographic standpoint, it’s fascinating to hear how the colorization work went. In still photography there were techniques back in those days to paint over still framed images. Moving pictures on the other hand would have been painstakingly difficult, but with the technology today with the world at our finger tips while it seems somewhat easy to mass batch process. It is the distinct color of grass that proved the most difficult to Jackson. “You can be slightly off with a uniform or a patch color, but everyone knows what grass looks like. You can’t mess that up,” says Jackson in the 30 minute segment after the film.

With a personal introduction by Peter Jackson before the film and a post film segment about the making of the film was by far a huge enhancement of the overall experience.  As Jackson said, “I am a non-historian making a documentary for other non-historians.” Jackson’s film does not include any specific dates or mention of any names. You are subject to the feeling, the story as a whole. Lighthearted spirited young men enlisting for their country, what they wore, who they met, and what they did for fun. A world war. It means just that, it included people across the world not just British and German, but Chinese, Americans, Canadians and more. Verdun, Marne, the Somme – famous names that are removed from mention. This film strips away the time stamp and connects you to the people. More than likely most of our families have had someone enlisted in this war or greatly affected by it. These faces we see on the screen are not actors, they were real people.

A haunting cadence echoes through the theater and images flashing faces of young men across the screen laughing, smiling, staring deadpan contrasted against images of dead bodies. It becomes a hard realization that these familiar faces that you’ve grown to somewhat know over the span of 90 minutes died the way they did. You’ve become one of the many. From the mud covered bodies and lice to the games and friendship made, in the back of your head as you watch this film “Have I seen my grandfather in this film? My great-grandfather? My great-great-grandfather”?  It opens your eyes to understand that this war wasn’t so far into our past as we seem to believe. These voices are fading. Time is passing. Their stories matter. Will we let them be heard? Will we keep their memory alive? Lest we forget?

In Flanders fields, the poppies blow…

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place, and in the sky,

The larks, still bravely singing, fly,

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high!

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

In Flanders Fields
John McCrae, 1872 – 1918