Skip to main content

Peter Jackson Brings WWI Footage To Life For ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’

New documentary opens Thursday and shows life of ordinary soldier

Photo credit: Warner Bros.

A restored and colorized image of British soldiers at the western front in Peter Jackson's World War I documentary, "They Shall Not Grow Old."

Companion viewing

"All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930)

"Forgotten Silver" (1995)

"Joyeux Noel" (2005)

Peter Jackson, the director behind the "Lord of the Rings" films, has created a documentary from 100-year-old footage about World War I called "They Shall Not Grow Old."

Peter Jackson made a mock-documentary in 1995 called "Forgotten Silver" in which he paid tribute to a supposedly overlooked pioneer of the silent era. To make the film he had to create impressive but entirely fake archival materials.

This little gem is too often overlooked and too rarely screened. What makes it extra sweet is that it was originally screened as a real documentary on TV to an unsuspecting New Zealand public; the hoax was only revealed later. So Jackson, actor Sam O’Neill, and film historian Leonard Maltin all appear perfectly strait-faced as themselves in a “documentary” about unsung auteur Colin McKenzie. Jackson meticulously mimics the public broadcasting documentary style — from the subdued seriousness of the voiceover narration to the talking head interviews — so that his film is indistinguishable from the real thing. The fake archival footage is an absolute delight and displayed exceptional care and craftsmanship in its creation.

In an odd way that film seems to have prepared him for the task of bringing real World War I footage to vivid life for "They Shall Not Grow Old." In both cases, Jackson had to make use of technology and meticulous attention to detail.

The British Imperial War Museum asked Jackson to make a documentary from hundreds of hours of archival footage and audio interviews.

The result is a stunning achievement that shows us what life was like for ordinary British soldiers on the western front. Jackson comes on before the film to give a little background on the making of the film and he notes that this is not the kind of documentary in which dates and locations are clearly cited and you learn all about the historical information about The Great War.

Jackson makes it clear that this is a deep dive into a narrow topic — his film looks specifically at British soldiers, mostly infantry, on the western front.

Much has been made of the beautiful colorization, inspired sound design and digital restoration and those are all things to celebrate. But that would all be meaningless if Jackson didn’t also weave a riveting and often heartbreaking story that invites our empathy and compassion for these soldiers.

But it's truly tragic that the lessons these men learned about the horrors of war, about the humanity of the men fighting on the opposite side, and about the waste of human life that happens during war seem to have fallen on deaf ears. They came back from what was supposed to be the war to end all wars, and they tried to share their stories, but since countries are still finding themselves embroiled in bitter fighting and wars, it would seem that we haven't learned from the past.

Jackson's film provides an amazing experience. Hopefully, it can also share the message these men tried to share a century ago about the cost of war in human lives and asking if it's worth it.

The film pairs up nicely with the A Capella chamber opera, "All Is Calm," which I recently did a story on.

Beth Accomando, Roland Lizarondo,

Peter Jackson, the director behind the "Lord of the Rings" films, has created a documentary from 100-year-old footage about World War I called "They Shall Not Grow Old."

You can hear this story and other local news every morning by subscribing to San Diego Stories, KPBS’ daily news podcast. Subscribe via iTunes, Google Play or your favorite podcatcher.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.