This year witnessed the centenary commemoration of the respective births of two champions of Christian thought and human liberty, Russell Kirk and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Both men were born coincidentally in the same time frame – October and December 1918 respectively – in which the “war to end all wars” ceased. The ensuing years, however, gave lie to that assessment – worse, far worse, was on the horizon. But the First World War was the moment the fragile crockery of Western civilization was not only upended, but broken into the fragments T.S. Eliot attempted to shore against our collective ruin with the subsequent assistance of, among others, Kirk and Solzhenitsyn.
The Great War provided grist for poets and novelists (e.g. David Jones and Evelyn Waugh), essayists and historians (e.g. Robert Graves and Paul Fussell), and even filmmakers (e.g. Stanley Kubrick and David Lean) who conjured cinematic dramaturgy on the subject. To the best of my knowledge, however, no major film documentary has been attempted in recent memory. At least until Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, scheduled for Fathom Event presentations at select theaters on Dec. 27 (the first of two viewing dates was Dec. 17).
Jackson (director of film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit as well as a remake of King Kong) was granted access to more than 600 hours of actual BBC-preserved footage of World War I. The technical marvel of colorizing some of these films is matched only by the ability to digitize them to eliminate the visually off-putting, herky-jerky effects of vintage celluloid. The modernization effectively transports the viewer to the battlefield – in true Wizard of Oz fashion, the audience doesn’t experience color or 3D until British battalions step foot on French soil – without sacrificing any of the historicity of the source material.
For some viewers, this might seem unfortunate however much it captures the dehumanization and sheer horror of the first modern war. There is an entire palette of gore on full display as the soldiers quickly come to the realization that there’s no chance they’ll be demobilized (demobbed) by Christmas 1914. Either depicted onscreen or described in lurid detail are corpses rotting on razor wire in no-man’s land and splayed across the countryside; soldiers shooting their platoon-mates to end their suffering, while others plummet into collapsing outdoor latrines. Then there are as well the rampant lice and armies of rats gnawing through human bone and flesh. As the war slogs on, the technology deployed to destroy as many humans and landmarks as possible proceeds apace: heavy artillery, flamethrowers, tanks and mustard gas. “There died a myriad,” wrote Ezra Pound, “And of the best, among them, For an old bitch gone in the teeth, For a botched civilization.”
The narrative of the film is chronological. Young men recruit, train and are shipped off to France. Battles are fought, men are killed, towns destroyed and armistice declared. Audio recordings of actual World War I soldiers provide the narration of their personal experiences while sound is approximated and dubbed in. The effect is more Studs Terkel than Ken Burns – instead of Burn’s use of sonorous narrators, for example, Jackson allows the men to tell their stories without interruption – albeit stories recorded decades after they were initially lived. One of the complaints heard from a fellow theater patron was that the British accents were sometimes so thick it was sometimes difficult to understand what the men were saying.
The film’s coda reveals the hardships demobbed soldiers experienced upon returning home. Soldiers who had been to hell and back (if they were indeed that lucky) were in violation of decorum if they shared war stories of deprivation and carnage. Jobs were scarce and the post-war economy teetered on the brink of the abyss. Amongst this rampant uncertainty one truth remained: Civilization had crossed the threshold it has been scrambling to return from ever since. Is it a coincidence that the world was blessed by the births of two cultural warriors who sought to redeem our time the same year the war ended?