Telling the story of the Australian Flying Corps led the Sir John Monash Centre’s project team to New Zealand where film director Sir Peter Jackson maintains one of the world’s largest collections of First World War fighter planes.
Sir Peter’s company, The Vintage Aviator, is a certified restorer and manufacturer of military aircraft, including the German Fokker Dr. 1 Dreidecker and the British Sopwith Camel, which was used extensively by Australian pilots in France.
The warbirds at Masterton, near Wellington, are in perfect working condition and throughout 2017 they returned to the skies to film aerial combat scenes for the Sir John Monash Centre.
On the Western Front, the Camel became iconic for its versatility, aerobatics and dogfighting.
The Red Baron, German fighter pilot Manfred von Richthofen, was pursuing a Sopwith Camel when he was shot down on 21 April 1918 near Vaux-sur-Somme, a sector of the Western Front controlled by the Australian Imperial Forces.
It is believed the bullet that killed him was fired from an Australian machine gun on the ground.
Three Australian soldiers watched as Richthofen landed his Fokker Dr.I and then uttered words including ‘kaputt’.
The Vintage Aviator is open to the public, as is the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre in Marlborough, New Zealand, which combines Sir Peter’s love of vintage aircraft with his Academy Award-winning film company, Wingnut films.
New Zealand locations played an important part in depicting the Western Front.
While the film crew was in New Zealand, they noticed the town of Oamaru, whose preserved Victorian buildings made it a perfect location to portray Villers-Bretonneux.
A combination of physical filming and visual effects turned the North Otago town into a war-ravaged village on the Western Front. In other scenes, it was transformed into Le Hamel, Paris and London.
Meanwhile, the landscape Sir Peter used for many of his blockbuster films (The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings) was ideal for the Western Front.
For a week, roads were closed off and local men dressed as Anzacs engaged in stealthy urban warfare and muddy battles.
Many of the young men were descendants of Anzacs and said they were honoured to be part of the Sir John Monash Centre production.