In his new film the acclaimed New Zealand film director and producer of Lord of the Rings, Sir Peter Jackson, has all but raised the dead – by means of one hundred hours of film and six hundred hours of interviews with scores of survivors, preserved by the Imperial War Museum in London. For Jackson, it was in part a cinematic labor of love in tribute to his grandfather - a professional soldier who fought through the entire war.
Much of the original film material was propaganda, beginning with recruitment and training, and leading up to the ghastly Battle of the Somme, where in Britain's greatest defeat ever, 20,000 soldiers would die in a single day.
In a fascinating post-film seminar, Jackson describes how he and his team of conservators turned jerky, dirty, damaged film into a modern masterpiece by increasing the overall camera speed to smooth the action, colorizing some parts to make it almost 3-D, and avoiding talking heads or even a single narrator.
Instead the narration is an oral tapestry of actor’s voices from different parts of Great Britain recruited to match the accents of survivors. Jackson added New Zealand artillery training fire for punctuation marks – and even hired forensic lip readers to interpret what soldiers were saying in the original silent footage.
It was jarring to see hundreds, even thousands of faces, some as young as 17, turn directly towards the camera with expressions that ran the gamut from curious to amused and occasionally fearful, as they encountered the novelty of a movie camera on stilts, pointing at THEM.
Then, as the camera paused to show one particularly excited-looking platoon, Jackson laments, "Most of those men have only half an hour to live."
Troops fix bayonets and go over the top as the film slowly moves from exuberant faces ready to charge - to bodies with ravaged faces lying amidst the debris of battle.
At the end, Jackson says of his subjects, "Their humanity just jumped out at you." And I felt sure that some of these same men had been buried in the thousands of graves I had seen in my own visits to what became famously known as "Flanders Fields."