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World War I footage seen in color for the first time

Peter Jackson is known for bringing to life the world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The Academy Award winning director has spent the past four years with a crew to meticulously take WWI footage in black-and-white and to restore it to color. The documentary film created from it  is called “They Shall Not Grow Old.”

In the 1930s, color film was coming into use for major motion pictures. World War I was well before the technological advance; the war was fought from 1914-1918.

Jackson and his team restored and colorized nearly 100 hours of original WWI footage. It now belongs to Britain’s Imperial War Museum.

“The First World War, for good or for worse, is defined in people’s imaginations by the film that is always used in all the documentaries and it looks bloody awful, for obvious reasons,” Jackson said.

“There were technical limitations and also a hundred years of age – of shrinkage and duplication and starches. I think it’s the best gift I can give at the moment, as well as this movie, to restore footage,” Jackson continued.

The movie “They Shall Not Grow Old” had a limited release in October. It contains 90 minutes of the footage from the overall haul Jackson and his team restored. The movie had its world premiere October 16 at the BFI London Film Festival.

Jackson studied pictures of crowds on the Internet in order to accurately recreate color for the footage. He used collections of WWI uniforms as a reference point. The narration of the film is provided by real veterans. Jackson took the time to go through recordings from 1964 of 120 men who fought in WWI.

“I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world, so they can regain their humanity once more – rather than be seen only as Charlie Chaplin-type figures in the vintage archive film,” Jackson told the BFI about the documentary. “By using our computing power to erase the technical limitations of 100 year cinema, we can see and hear the Great War as they experienced it.”

Jackson’s previous work has a tie to WWI. The acclaimed author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings fought in the war. Tolkien’s relatives were shocked when he elected not to immediately volunteer for the British Army. Tolkien entered a program to delay enlistment, so he could complete his degree. He passed his finals in July 1915. His family urged him to enlist in the army throughout his studies. He was commissioned as a temporary second lieutenant on July 15, 1915. He trained with the 13th (Reserve) Battalion on Cannock Chase, Staffordshire.

Tolkien married Edith Bratt during the war in 1916. Following the wedding, the Lieutenant and Mrs. Tolkien took up lodgings near the training camp — it wasn’t the most romantic idea. Parting from his wife to go to war depressed Tolkien.

One of the most well known things he wrote while at war was the poem The Lonely Isle.

After he left Étaples on June 27, 1916, the author joined his battalion at Rubempré, near Amiens. He took compassion on enlisted men  from the mining, milling, and weaving towns of Lancashire. He had to command them, which made him uneasy.

According to John Garth, he “felt an affinity for these working class men”, but military protocol prohibited friendships with “other ranks.” Instead, he was required to “take charge of them, discipline them, train them, and probably censor their letters … If possible, he was supposed to inspire their love and loyalty.”

Tolkien later lamented, “The most improper job of any man … is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.” These hardships inspired his later works and are in part why the fantasy he composed has such depth.

On October 27, 1916, Tolkien came down with trench fever. He was invalided to England on November 8, 1916. Sadly, many of his closest schools friends were killed in the war. His battalion was almost completely wiped out after he returned to England. Tolkien said that by 1918 all but one of his close friends had died.

A weak and emaciated Tolkien spent the remainder of the war alternating between hospitals and garrison duties, being deemed medically unfit for combat.

Tolkien never expected to be a popular author. He wrote The Hobbit for his children. In 1936, his work caught the attention of Susan Dagnall, an employee of the London publishing firm George Allen & Unwin. They persuaded Tolkien to submit it for publication. The book instantly attracted readers, both adults and children. It was popular enough to lead to a sequel.

It took the author ten years to write the primary narrative and appendices for The Lord of the Rings. He originally intended for it to be more for children, but as he wrote the series, it grew darker.

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