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Film aims to change how we will remember them

Sarah Olowofoyeku looks at a new war documentary that shows the true colours of soldiers’ experiences

Forensic lip-readers deciphered what the men were saying

MORE than 100 years ago, young men from all across Great Britain stepped away from ordinary civilian life to sign up for the war that had been declared on Germany. In the documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, broadcast on BBC Two tomorrow (Sunday 11 November), their experiences are brought to life.

Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson is behind this First World War film, made to mark the centenary of the end of the ‘war to end all wars’.

‘I wanted to find a way to bring new life to the stories of ordinary people living through extraordinary times,’ he says.

To achieve this aim, he trawled through original First World War footage from the Imperial War Museum archives and audio recordings from a documentary made by the BBC in 1963 when veterans relayed their memories of the Great War. Their recollections provide the narration of the documentary.

At the start of the process, Peter was given a loose brief – to create a war film people hadn’t seen before, using only archive materials. After looking through the footage, he says in an interview with the BBC’s Mark Kermode, ‘it felt like the natural thing to do, to let them tell their story. And they’re not telling the story of why the Somme happened … They’re just telling us what it was like to be a soldier.’

He adds: ‘With their voices being the soundtrack, it became apparent that we should try to present the images as close as we could to what they experienced.

‘They didn’t see the war in black and white, they saw it in colour. But we didn’t want to do reconstructions. We could easily dress up a lot of guys in uniforms and film some stuff today, but we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to use strictly archive footage.’

So the film-maker and his team took the footage that was originally in black and white and colourised it. Any footage in black and white can seem distant, as if it is a relic from the past. By colourising these sequences, the action is brought into a present-day setting and the men are made human. The speed of the films was also adjusted with computers so that the but happened in natural time. movement on the screen was not jerky,

Although there was no sound recorded when the films were originally made, a team worked to recreate a realistic soundscape. Viewers can hear the thunderous noises from battle as well as the men’s discussion, their laughter and their marching boots.

Forensic lip-readers were tasked with watching the footage and deciphering what the men were saying, then actors were hired to record those conversations. Great attention to detail was paid to portray accurately what was said and the way it would have been said. For example, the names of regiments were checked to ensure the right accent was given to the soldiers on screen.

The documentary begins just before war is declared. The veterans’ narration takes viewers through the experience of enrolment, in which many young boys lied about their age to be accepted. Most didn’t think the war would last long and saw enrolling as a job.

This motley crew of men and boys were whipped into shape in a ‘crash programme of military training’ before being shipped over to mainland Europe.

On arrival, they were soon faced with the reality of war. They had no spare clothes and would go to the toilet sitting on raised planks of wood. There were no beds.

The narrators describe the front line’s continuous shelling, the smell of death and the rats that fed on dead bodies.

As the weather got worse, the trenches began to fill with rain and the men would spend their time standing chest-deep in water. Many experienced frostbite and trench foot.

Despite the tough conditions, they say, there was ‘a lot of kindness’ and unity between the men. While they experienced something awful together, they found ways to entertain themselves and enjoyed a strong sense of friendship.

In stark contrast, the documentary goes on to show a battle scene, as veterans describe killing others. Then finally when the war ends, one man describes a ‘feeling of relief and gladness, but no celebrations. We were drained of all emotion, too far gone, too exhausted to enjoy it.’

When they returned home, the veterans were mistreated. They describe seeing job posts that said ex-servicemen need not apply. ‘People didn’t seem to realise what war was,’ one remarks.

Peter Jackson’s documentary helps us to realise the reality of war for the men who were fighting it. For Christians, it is also an opportunity to remember the people who are caught up in violence and war today, and to pray for peace around the world.

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