They Shall Not Grow Old
Directed by Peter Jackson
Documentary, History, War
They Shall Not Grow Old has the feel of a video in a museum running in a continuous loop outside of history. Without any dates, facts, or specific events, the footage, retrofitted for a contemporary, postmodern audience, slides past the viewer demanding acknowledgement while disabling comprehension. Through sound bites strung together over a pastiche of images, venerable veterans recount their memories of enlistment or conscription, life on the front, a battle, surrender, and the return home after experiencing the unrelatable. The unnamed battle, perhaps The Somme as archetype, serves as a climax ushering in the denouement. Grounded within an exhibit, and surrounded by physical and interpretive historical mnemonics, the film might provide an emotive subtext for the horrors and personal nature of international conflict. Without that grounding, the film drops us into no man’s land, demanding we stare at the gangrenous feet of a soldier who will never walk again or visualize a poor soul who fell from the boardwalk into a cesspool of mud and blood which will swallow him whole. We know how we must respond but are denied the particularity, depth, and honesty to see how it is possible to respond.
In an era where answers must be short and direct, either right or wrong, and often accompanied by visuals, this type of documentary feeds into the emotive nature of “information” in an “information age.” So comfortable have we, the ageless contemporaries of screen time, become with the treachery of images, we fill in the senseless gaps between the visuals, the commentary, and the feelings they invoke. One of the most heart wrenching sequences in the film is a series of cuts from a face to a corpse, one soldier after another. Moustaches, hairlines, head shapes, and facial features are matched as closely as possible, though the linked images are not of the same people. The film, in this montage, trampled an obscure line between fictional truth and outright deceit. The viewer has no defense. We’re staring at the tragic end of a life lost too soon; we’re also staring at our own ignorance, our inability to recognize the fallen soldier, to pair his corpse with his life.
The silent subjects stared at the camera with obvious self-consciousness, having rarely, if ever, been caught on film before. We, the audience returning their gaze, know the eye of the camera better than we know the eyes of the unknown soldiers, the history they represent, or the eyes of our neighbors and coworkers, unless we see them as a type, a familiar identity shown to us somewhere before. Near the end of the film, a voice describes the struggle to shift back to postwar life and how, when he returned to the same job he’d left before the war, his coworker asked if he’d been working the night shift. The coworker lends us his voice, and we replace the past with our perceptions of unsupported troops, substituting Iraq, Afghanistan, The Falklands, and Vietnam for The Great War, a war which affected every single person in Great Britain, without exception, in ways we, having never experienced total mobilization, cannot comprehend. Rather than grasping a difficult historical truth which might jar us from our
privileged present, we nod along complacently, if uncomfortably, with what we find familiar, that no one, blood and guts be damned, receives proper recognition.
Unlike the soldier whose eternal youth was not a choice, we’ve chosen to live forever young, or at least, if it wasn’t a choice, we’ve immersed ourselves in a commercial culture that denies reconciliation with a communal past, the wellspring of venerability, and glosses difference and specificity in favor of inclusion and similarity, a cinematic shorthand. We’re at the mercy of the film. If you remove the evocation of feeling tones, we’ve no connection to the death on the screen, no context through which to relate, and the film provides us none. They Shall Not Grow Old obscures an already lost generation behind the veil of a colorized screen, but its importance lies in what it reveals about us and our differently disoriented era.