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Against Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old”

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 21, 2018

W.H. Auden, Jacques Barzun, and Lionel Trilling once published a rather unusual review of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. In it, they write:

What a relief to resist what one can entirely respect and even admire! What a comfort it is to be not always defending oneself from vulgarity, or enlightened stupidity, or the masked cliché, or smallness of aim, but sometimes to stand out against the force of greatness.

Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old is not Finnegans Wake, but it is a stunning technical achievement made by a filmmaker and producer at the top of their form. If I had seen it in my twenties, when I was obsessed with the Great War, with war in general, and with films that emphasized both the quotidian and the unthinkable nature of violence, I would have doubtlessly been very taken with it. But as I am today, given everything I’ve learned about cinema and the universe, I can’t help but refuse and reject this picture in the strongest possible terms. It is a brilliant film that is also, unfortunately, a total mistake.

I’m not interested in films that plunge themselves headlong into violence any more. I’m not interested in the manipulation of multitudinous evidence to tell a simple, linear story. I’m not interested in British soldiers fighting Germans on the Western Front, telling stories about their time in the trenches. I came to the film looking for a story I hadn’t seen or heard before, and those stories were nowhere to be found.

To be sure, the best parts of the film are about the everyday life of soldiers: what they ate, what they wore, the things they carried, how they kept themselves clean, how they occupied themselves in downtime, how they made tea using water heated by tank chassis and took a shit by sitting six abreast on a long pole. This is rich material.

The problem, however, is principally who gets to tell their story, and how their story is told. Peter Jackson took hundreds of hours of archival film footage, and later audio recordings of veterans made by the BBC, and artfully juxtaposes the two.

Despite the many voices, it is almost as if a single soldier is telling his story: he enlisted young because he felt a peculiarly British call of duty, and to alleviate boredom on the home front; he trained and drilled relentlessly until his body was whipped into shape; he was dispatched to fight and kill Germans in defense of France; he visited brothels and became a man; he was gassed and recovered, wounded and recovered; he dodged artillery shells launched by both the enemy and his own side; and he killed Germans in a heroic over-the-top charge across the no-man’s land that soon ended the war; he returned to ungrateful civilians who couldn’t possibly understand the horrors he’d seen, and how they’d forever changed him.

Any differences between these men, of class, of region, of age or experience, of height and weight, of rank or distinction achieved during the war, are completely washed away. They are simply young British infantrymen, made entirely generic and interchangeable. This is whose experience we’re getting in the film: not any particular men with individual stories, but a monolith.

Jackson can do this because he’s already selected these soldiers for their homogeneity. He tells us after the film that he’s discarded any footage that falls outside what really is a quite narrow view of the war and the people who fought it. He’s not interested in any of the other fronts of the war or the nations who fought in it. He has hours of footage of aircraft and pilots. He doesn’t use them. He has footage of women working as nurses and drivers and support staff, on and around the battlefield. He discards it. He has really quite stunning footage of women working in factories to produce the arms and gear that he so lovingly dotes on when they’re in his beloved soldiers’ possession. He throws it away. And, he tells us, he chose not to tell the story of the British colonial soldiers, men from all over the world, or their allies, including Chinese soldiers who fought on the Western front, or white or black Americans or anyone else.

He takes the “world” out of the first world war. And then, he tells us, unbelievably, that this extremely diluted, abstract take on the British soldier could stand in for any soldier who fought in the war. Whether they were German, Canadian, American, Polish, Turkish, or Russian, he thinks their experience of the war was likely very much the same as the British soldiers whose stories he smashes together.

Ask a black American soldier, fighting in a segregated regiment, whether his experience of the war was the same as the British soldiers he fought besides. Ask one of the Arab irregulars immortalized and distorted in Lawrence of Arabia what it was like to fight across German soldiers, who turned out to be really not so different after all, in trenches. Ask the African soldiers who fought and died in Europe. Ask what their equipment situation was, whether they got paid, or what their lives were like when the war ended. Ask the civilians whose lives were uprooted by these soldiers killing and destroying the countryside in their midst. Ask one of the women who cranked out artillery shells in the factory only to be turned away from her job at the war’s end whether or not anyone else could really understand her wartime experience.

Go ahead, ask them. I’ll wait.

Because Jackson didn’t have any footage of hand-to-hand combat, he chose instead to do a kind of Ken-Burns-effect dramatic pan over contemporary cartoons from war magazines. The trouble is that, as Jackson notes, these were racist propaganda magazines that he just happened (for some reason?) to have a complete personal collection of. But, he promises, he and his editors avoided the most egregiously racist images.

Jackson’s depiction of violence in this movie is jolting. One technique he loves is to pick a voice-over of a veteran describing the death of a friend that he witnessed, laying this audio over a zoom-in of a soldier smiling and laughing, then quick-cutting to a dead body lying in a heap, with blood and bodily matter everywhere. The blood isn’t the matted black stuff of reality that the men saw, but a sickly, B-movie red.

If you loved watching orcs get their heads split open in The Lord of the Rings, you will love this movie. If you loved Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, or any war movie that substituted blood and guts for gritty realism, you will love this movie. If however, you think, as I do, that these films, while works of a kind of genius, ultimately worked to manipulate our emotions and make us less feeling and less human, you will have huge problems with this movie.

Ultimately, at this point in my life, when movies like Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk and Creed and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse exist, I’m less interested in brutality for brutality’s sake, and much more interested in the possibility of love between fully realized, lovingly rendered human beings. I’m much less interested in white people’s stories, and the white man’s gaze, especially when they are stories we have heard so many times before, from a point of view that everyone is expected to pretend has no differences from their own.

You will learn nothing about love in They Shall Not Grow Old. You will learn nothing about World War 1 that you didn’t already know if you’d read a few Wilfred Owen poems and skimmed a high school history book. You honestly learn very little that you don’t learn from the trailer.

You get no sense of what the war was about, why it was fought, how it changed anything, or why it mattered, or even if it did matter. The world that it shows is seen through a peephole in a trench, made by a boy who fantasized about reliving his grandfather’s experiences.

That peephole is not a door that can take you anywhere. The shift from a narrow, small black and white screen to a full-screen 3D color experience is just a camera trick. You never left Kansas, not even for a minute.

In an ideal world, Jackson will return to all that footage he left behind, and make the film he should have made, telling the stories of the war that truly have not already been told. As it stands, though, this film is a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick. In trying to celebrate their heroism, it distorts and distends the memories of all those who died in the war, who didn’t return to tell their stories.

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.

Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,

For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.