I spent Martin Luther King Jr. Day watching the film, ‘They Shall Not Grow Old.’ A war film. On a day that commemorates the birth of a man who preached peace and became a pariah when he denounced war, you go see a war flick? It wasn’t my intent by any means though the film was showing just for one day all across the country.
Yet, my love of cinema worked perfect this time. Peter Jackson, a filmmaker from New New Zealand, who is most known for ‘The Lord of the Rings’ films and ‘The Hobbit’ cinematic offerings, delivers, rather unintentionally, a film that is anti-war. He uses footage that is all from World War I itself: the grit and grime and the futility of war and the waste of human life. It is actual footage from the violent and inhumane frontlines of WWI from the British War Museum who pressed Jackson to do a film. Jackson had the footage restored and at certain points, colorized, in order to add to the film’s authenticity.
In addition, the voices of veterans from World War I is used to describe the narrative of the film and the horror of war. This combination of first person testimonials and graphic footage of the dead, the wounded, the violence, and the horrid conditions of war, proclaims without having to even shout it: War is tragic, and destructive, and as Edwin Starr sang — good for absolutely nothing. I was moved.
Of course, there are films that are anti-war such as ‘Hearts and Minds,’ the Vietnam Era film that screams against war. But, films can have many purposes and Jackson achieves such here. Jackson thinks that the memory of the war, and our connection to that war is dying out and we should capture the history while we can. I agree with that too.
But the images of the dead and the degrading conditions under which the men fought is what grabbed me and it is what will drive people to understand why many criticize leaders who loosely order armies to invade. The title says it all too: ‘they shall not grow old.’ You know the men you see are the walking dead. Most of them will soon be dead not long after the camera captures their brief appearances on film. They know it too; it is written about their faces. And this is the early days of film, of all kinds, so their fascination with the camera is part of the film’s rich fabric. Little did they know the story they would once tell the world because they knew they would not grow old.