While millions of HBO fans await the final denouement of Game of Thrones, there’s another even more visually arresting film available on Netflix that’s also transfixing viewers, because it tells the story of a long-ago reality battle, not some CGI-generated fantasy of today.
They Shall Not Grow Old is a viscerally powerful film, produced by academy award-winning New Zealand director Peter Jackson of The Lord of the Rings fame, whose own grandfather was a career British soldier who survived the entire four years of World War I combat.
The movie’s historic, silent, black and white footage was captured more than 100 years ago. Jackson’s transformation of those images transports viewers – as if in H.G. Wells’ time machine – to a searing and poignant front row seat in the trenches near a hellscape no man’s land that divided the opposing forces.
Like The Wizard of Oz, this movie spends the first 20 minutes or so telling its story through grainy, black and white footage voiced over with the recollections of veterans. Suddenly, the film shifts into brilliantly colored imagery, replete with the bright red poppies everywhere, immortalized in that famous poem In Flanders Fields.
It’s interesting to contemplate that no one who experienced that war or saw those images remains living today.
Another amazing aspect of They Shall Not Grow Old is that Jackson used voice actors to replicate the words of the soldiers in the film. The voices of those who fought in the trenches tell us about the devastation and horror they saw, experienced, and felt.
The director added the sounds of cannons, soldiers marching and other realistic noises that would naturally occur.
As someone who comes from a long-line of military veterans who served in various wars and conflicts, I was drawn to watch this movie twice. My grandfather, Tira Garland Sexton, known by his grandchildren as PaPa, was a soldier in that war. I was named after him.
My father served in WWII and his brother uncle Frank did as well. My brother, Rodney, joined the Navy and my husband, Larry in the Air Force served in Vietnam.
My mind whirled back to the Vietnam War when my husband, Larry was a pilot. He was 23 and much older than the young men shown in the film although he was blond, blue eyed and looked much younger than he was. His dream was to be a pilot in the USAF, and he made that dream come true.
Early in the film, while the images are still in black and white, I felt as if someone had kicked me in the stomach as I listened to young boys bragging about joining up even though they were not eighteen years old. One said, “When I went to join, I told the recruiter I was 17.” Another shared proudly, “I said I was 16,” and another said, “I told the truth too, I’m 15.”
It was if it didn’t matter to the British authorities; the government needed bodies, it seemed, and it didn’t care if they were underage. After all, this was going to be a short and decisive conflict.
But WWI was a totally different war. It was dubbed “the war to end all wars.” But we know that didn’t happen.
Watching the movie was surreal. As the black and white footage transitions to smooth color images thanks to modern technology, I watched as a huge cloud of mustard gas descended upon the battleground. That was a poignant point in the film for me. My PaPa experienced mustard gas poisoning during the war.
My grandmother, Nennie, always reminded us that his breathing was hard at times because of the mustard gas he inhaled during the war. That’s why he suffered from asthma the rest of his life as a farmer in West Texas, which was made worse by the frequent red sandstorms that sometimes blew so strong you couldn’t see across the road.
I recall as a little girl watching him pour clear liquid from a small bottle into an inhaler with a rubber tube hanging from a plastic apparatus shaped like a toy gun. He said it was Asthmanefrin for his breathing problems.
I, too, was diagnosed with asthma as a child but I didn’t get it from a war. I was allergic to the pollen in west Texas. In a perverse way, I loved that PaPa and I shared something in common, even if it was asthma.
After PaPa died of a heart attack in 1962 due to a tractor accident, Nennie received a document from the veterans’ administration for his service during the WWI.
The stories of these young men reminded me of the stories some of Larry’s friends shared at Larry’s funeral about their time in Vietnam. This movie presents the unvarnished realities of war. The death, sorrow and yes, the powerful comradery of soldiers, is inescapable.
Perhaps this is why I’ve always been a fan of war movies. I have seen almost every movie made about Vietnam, World War I and World War II. I’m drawn to these movies because I cannot understand why throughout the ages, why our government sends our best and brightest into the horror of war. As I watched the film, I again wondered what causes humans to take up arms against one another.
And yet, I am not a pacifist. I understand that leaders and citizens of countries and throughout time have had to defend their livelihood and their country.
Thank you to everyone who has served our country far and near and to those who love them. While writing this blog, a song hummed through my brain nonstop.
It was the words and melody of Pete Seeger’s Where have all the Flowers Gone. Seeger was one of America’s most heralded folk singers, songwriters and social activists. The 100th anniversary of his birth is May 3, 2019.
© Tyra Manning 2019