Documentary Review: They Shall Not Grow Old

by Steve Lancaster4/22/19
Peter Jackson, director of Lord of the Rings and Hobbit fame, released this documentary last year. In the copious number of movies and books made about the Great War, this is one of the best—for as much of what it does not do as much as what it does. There are no famous actors reading quotes from scholars. No condescending experts telling about how the British, Germans, Russians, French could-have, should-have, didn’t-do, this that or the other.

The story is about the men and women who actually fought. Most of the film footage is from the Imperial War Museum and never before seen. It is not just the rare footage but the editing that brings the war into the viewer’s living room. The documentary begins and ends with black-and-white views of soldiers leaving for the war and returning home. The middle part, from the arrival at the front to the end of the war, is in color.

We all know intellectually that the war was not fought in silence and black and white. What Jackson has done is carefully colorized the fighting and the life of the soldiers. Lots of pictures have been colorized but not with such realistic care. The film could be mistaken for something filmed just yesterday. The sound is taken directly from the words spoken in their singular accents. Soldiers from a Devon regiments have distinctive Devon accents. Londoners sound like Londoners and the Scots, of course, from the highlands to Edenborough. Jackson employed lip readers to match the words spoken on film. It works very well.

The film is Anglo-centric but that does not take anything away. Every nation had much the same experience in the war. The trenches were no less filthy, rat- and lice-infested for the Germans, Americans, or French…nor the daily smell of death less for some and not others.

In 2019, we are used to a sanitized view of war. Causalities are low, wound care is fast and efficient, thus survival rates from wounds that would have been fatal bring vets home with life to families. The Great War resulted in millions of dead, men and women who have no voice in the 21st century. Jackson has given them a voice. He has done a service to not only English veterans, but all who fought in that war.

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22 Responses to Documentary Review: They Shall Not Grow Old

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Oh, I definitely want to see this now, Steve, although this isn’t likely to be a cheery sort of documentary. Maybe this will come to Red Box or a streaming service soon. At the moment, I can find it only for purchase.

    • Steve Lancaster says:

      Amazon has it for purchase at $19.95 but no rentals that I can find. I bit the bullet and purchased it. I have a good friend that teaches in MO who has not seen it yet. As a historian it fills a void in WW I similar to how The New Breed fills the same sort of void ion the Pacific War.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Thanks for the confirming info, Steve. I would probably shell out the money to rent it. But I’m not quite interested in buying it. But it sounds like a very interesting documentary from Jackson.

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    When I heard of this film, the first thing which came to my mind was the following poem. The fourth stanza is the most famous.

    For the Fallen

    By Laurence Binyon

    With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
    England mourns for her dead across the sea.
    Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
    Fallen in the cause of the free.

    Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
    Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
    There is music in the midst of desolation
    And a glory that shines upon our tears.

    They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
    Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
    They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
    They fell with their faces to the foe.

    They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
    Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
    At the going down of the sun and in the morning
    We will remember them.

    They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
    They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
    They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
    They sleep beyond England’s foam.

    But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
    Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
    To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
    As the stars are known to the Night;

    As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
    Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
    As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
    To the end, to the end, they remain.

  3. Timothy Lane says:

    Naturally, this sort of thing makes me think of John S. McCrae’s famous “In Flanders Fields”. He wrote it in 1915, and I wonder if before he died in 1918 (of disease, I think) his view of the war had changed in any way. Martin Gilbert in his history of World War I included that and many other poems, one of which I included in the “Poetry” section here (as well as “In Flanders Fields”). That one, untitled, was also appropriate for this section: it was about an officer writing to a father about his dead son. (“You were his father, but I was his officer.”)

  4. David Ray says:

    WW1 had it’s share of unique attributes. 1st aerial combat, 1st flame throwers, 1st gas warfare, etc.
    What struck me as surreal was the insane fact that they were going over the top right up until the long agreed armistice. Warrior poet Alfred Owen was killed because of that crap.
    What was the point!? An end was already scheduled. So why charge over when Nov. 11th was only days away.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      This also happened on the Italian front. For example, the Austro-Hungarians were turning over one of their dreadnoughts to the new Yugoslav navy when it got sunk by an Italian raid. Much of the success of their victory at Vittorio Veneto (the crucial attack was by a corps commanded by that great Italian general, the Earl of Cavan) came after the armistice there was agreed to but before it took official effect. I don’t know how long that interval was on the Western front.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      What struck me as surreal was the insane fact that they were going over the top right up until the long agreed armistice. Warrior poet Alfred Owen was killed because of that crap.
      What was the point!?

      That’s a great point, David. Obviously if the individual soldier didn’t go over the top, he would be disgraced and perhaps even courtmartialed and shot by his own side. Peer pressure was huge as well.

      “Girl power” has its own hysterical and destructive side. But so does “Boy power.” And every book, movie, or article I’ve seen on WWI noted the vast enthusiasm that men on all sides had for participating in a glorious battle.

      All that aside, you’d think that, tactically, cooler heads would prevail. But they didn’t. They still kept sending people over the top into machine gun fire. I still find WWI impossible to understand. Europe, in the midst of prosperity and peace, self-destructed (as it is doing now in slow-motion via the EU and Muslim immigration). Oh, don’t get me wrong. I blame the warlike Germans. This is their fault. But it didn’t take much prompting to get everyone else into a jingoistic war footing.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        The greatest fault for starting the Great War lies with Serbia. Their assassination of the Habsburg heir set if off. Kaiser Bill certainly was a blustery sort (the Donald Trump of his day), but he didn’t want war and thought the Serb response to the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum was good enough to prevent it. There was plenty of blame to go around.

        The soldiers started out with a great deal of enthusiasm, but it didn’t last. Leon Wolff in In Flanders Fields (about the 1917 Western Front, especially the Third Battle of Ypres) quotes the Tommies as singing, “We’re here because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here . . .” There’s a saying that no one wants to be the last man killed in a war, which tends to result in a lot less enthusiasm for battle.

        But if your orders are to attack, most men will obey, just as most men on the other side will defend. There are always bad generals (any large group will have its share of idiots), but the Great War was especially replete with them. That’s why you had incidents like the French Army mutinies after the 1917 Nivelle offensive. On the other hand, one book on the Italian front noted that the front-line Austro-Hungarian troops kept fighting even as the country behind them disintegrated.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          I’m not sure that the justified response to the death of some disposable and forgettable member of the aristocracy is total war with the destruction of an entire generation of men.

          God forbid someone assassinate a Western leader of today. But total war cannot be justified as the only response. Germany was a bunch of war-minded sons of bitches. Since then they’ve put their energies into industry and are owning Europe just as assuredly in another way. That is the acceptable way to bitch-slap the French these days.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            Franz Ferdinand was not some minor aristocrat, he was heir to the throne. Ironically, he also favored trialism, which would have given the Slavs a position similar to that of Hungary. (Maybe that’s why Franz Josef didn’t much like him.)

            The Germans were probably no more war-minded than France or Russia in 1914. Ironically, Austria-Hungary wasn’t especially, though the second most blame for events after Serbia.

            Ironically, Serbia had been an Austro-Hungarian client state while it was ruled by the Obrenovich dynasty (and they saved the country’s bacon when it was defeated by Bulgaria a couple of decades previously). That changed after the dynasty was bloodily overthrown by the Karageorgevich clan.

            But it was very unwise for Franz Ferdinand to visit Sarajevo (Habsburg control was a sore point for the ethnic Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina) on June 28, the anniversary of the fatal Battle of Kosovo. And they were unwise, if strikingly decent, in allowing General Putnik (the able Serb commander) to go home from vacationing in Austria-Hungary. (No one expected war initially, except maybe the Serb nationalists who were involved in the assassination plot.)

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            God forbid someone assassinate a Western leader of today. But total war cannot be justified as the only response

            What do you think would happen if:

            A young Iraqi (Gavrilo Princip) who was part of the Al-Sadr group (Young Bosnia) which aimed at unifying Islam (Yugoslavia) that was supported and guided by another powerful group in Iran (Serbia) called the Revolutionary Guard (Black Hand) assassinated the American Vice-President on a visit to Bagdad?

            The comparison is not perfect, but WWI destroyed the world in which it took place so exact comparisons are not possible.

            Of course, war should be approached very cautiously, but the assassination of the no. 2 political figure of a country is a political provocation which cannot go unanswered.

            Austria’s slow response to the provocation was probably the biggest mistake made in the whole affair. Had they gone into Serbia quickly and made the government suffer and then ease up, WWI would likely not have happened. But the Austrians never move quickly so a rapid raid was probably never on the cards.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              And the nature of great power politics at the time made the assassination even less acceptable. All the major European powers (and not-so-major ones like Austria-Hungary and Italy) engaged in this to much the same degree.

              A pro-Habsburg friend of mine (he once had pet turtles named Franz Josef and Charles V) made that same point. Even the Triple Entente nations initially sympathized with the Habsburgs, remembering the slaughter of the Obrenoviches less than a decade earlier. But a month later, cold-blooded power politics had had time to reassert itself.

      • Steve Lancaster says:

        “I blame the warlike Germans. This is their fault.”

        There are a number of reasons to blame the Germans, but equal fault lies with the French, Russians, English and Austrians (who don’t speak Austrian you ignorant POS BO). It is the latter that bear most fault for dragging the German Empire into war. Wilhelm discharged Bismarck and took over German policy on his own.

        This is not to say that Bismarck’s policies were ironclad but he kept the general peace in Europe for over 20 years. With his death the officer corps felt free to explore adventurism they might not have engaged in had Wilhelm been a stranger leader.

        That adventurism might have resulted in a military victory over the French in 1905 and ultimately prevented both World Wars. The crisis in Jena would serve as a justifiable reason for war. England was still licking wounds from the Boor War and would not have sent troops. Russia was in the middle of growing discontent and riots and would not have come to the aid of the French.

        From a German perspective the time for war was 1905 not 1914. Wilhelm’s chief fault was that he did not have historical perspective. The 1914 war was as much Molke’s war if blame can be assigned he almost single-handily pushed Germany into the wrong war, at the wrong time, with the wrong foe.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Hey. At least I didn’t blame the Jews. 😀 Thanks for your thoughts on this, Steve.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Moltke was actually pessimistic. He may have been aware that long-term trends (such as Russia’s increasing development) were unfavorable to Germany. One unfortunate factor was that Germany had only one general mobilization plan, having gotten rid of a plan to concentrate against Russia in 1913 They might have been able to rescue it anyway, and such a war might not have led to a general war since they had a much stronger claim to a defensive war.

          (Russia had declared war on Austria-Hungary, with whom Germany had a defensive pact, after A-H declared war on Serbia, with whom Russia did NOT have a defensive pact).

          Also, an attack on Russia and defense in the West wouldn’t have led to the violation of Belgian neutrality or an actual threat to France, thus keeping Britain out.

          But you’re right that an earlier war would have been better for Germany if it came to that. Perhaps even as late as the 1910 Moroccan crisis, but probably not later. One might note that Bismarck made it a key point of his diplomacy to keep France isolated, and thus unable to threaten Germany with a war of revenge. Kaiser Bill foolishly dropped the informal Dreikaiserbund, which enabled the Dual Alliance between France and Russia.

          • Steve Lancaster says:

            About the only person who had a historic view of the consequences of war was Arch Duke Ferdinand. His was one of the only voices talking caution to the Austrians.

            Moltke sabotaged the war when he ordered divisions from the western theater of operations to the east. Thereby weakening the offensive just when it needed those divisions. Germany had plenty of time to deal with the Russians after forcing France to surrender. You could point to this as the one thing Hitler got correct. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.

            • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

              You could point to this as the one thing Hitler got correct. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.

              But then he flipped the mistake by attacking the USSR a year after smashing France.

              I personally believe Hitler’s most consequential mistake was allowing the BEF and various French, and other forces, get away to England after they were bottled up in Dunkirk.

              Hitler’s greatest successes came about because of huge gambles which he was willing to take and, amazingly won. Clearly, he knew his opponents’ “tell.” But like all compulsive gamblers, who are not able to walk away from the table, his opponents finally figured out his game and his luck ran out. That is not to say he didn’t almost win despite this. He almost did.

              It should never be forgotten that Hitler was, like the October Revolution, the misbegotten offspring of WWI.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      What struck me as surreal was the insane fact that they were going over the top right up until the long agreed armistice.

      I believe it was Robert Graves who wrote about an interesting aspect of trench warfare. It appears that lookouts would rather stand about waist-high above the trench edge as opposed to just sticking their heads above the edges. The reason was that enemy machine guns were set to fire just a few inches higher than the edge of the Allied trenches. Thus if one was standing waist-high one might get a body shot which might not kill one, but if one was sticking one’s head over the top, a head shot was more likely and there was no coming back from that.

      This struck me as a good example of the difference between theory and practice. Beware of untested theory.

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