Newspapers on the other side of the world are calling it “the biggest U.S. cinema event of all time.”
Critical acclaim has poured in from all corners for the BBC production They Shall Not Grow Old, a technical and emotional masterpiece on the First World War — the war Woodrow Wilson said would “make the world safe for democracy.”
The way the film brings old footage, and therefore the soldiers, to life is almost magical and powerfully moving. But because of how director Peter Jackson defined his film, a critical element is virtually invisible: the wounded.
Jackson distilled the stories of 120 veterans who spoke on some 600 hours of BBC audio tape done in the 1960s and ‘70s. His goal was to have “120 men telling a single story…what it was like being a British soldier on the Western Front.” He artfully presents it, using no narration other than the archive of BBC interviews.
But since dead men tell no tales, nor do the severely wounded often live into their 70s and 80s, the film narrows its focus to the camaraderie and adventures of young men growing up with shared experiences of tinned rations, trench life, and rats. The dead flit across the screen in graphic but limited numbers of colorized photos of corpses.
The wounded receive mute witness with brief footage of gas attacks, and a classic photo of seven British troops carrying one wounded comrade through the knee-deep mud of Passchendaele.
Jackson’s team brilliantly turned herky-jerky, silent, monochrome youths into breathing, talking, living color, with compelling stories. But because of his cinematic goal, this assured award-winner misses the depth of feeling and realism it could have projected by giving similar treatment to the agony of the wounded.
Among the neglected images that failed to benefit from Jackson’s alchemy is footage of shell-shock victims filmed at Britain’s Netley Hospital in 1917. The footage would have retained its halting, jerking properties not from erratic frame speeds, but because the young men were tormented with nerve damage.
Nor did Jackson include footage of amputee veterans exiting Queen Mary’s Workshop, dozen upon dozen upon dozen, hobbling in rapid succession.
He might’ve added one or two photos from New Zealand doctor Major Harold Gillies’ groundbreaking book Plastic Surgery of the Face, showing how red-hot shrapnel can carve bone and muscle into monstrous forms.
My own experiences revealed the side of war that Jackson left out.
Ever since nursing GIs returning from Vietnam, I’ve firmly believed that no member of Congress should be allowed to vote on war funding until working for a month in the back ward of a VA hospital.
Let them vote only after emptying urine bags, turning sallow bodies, and daubing the bed sores of formerly healthy youths who will never move on their own again. Or after offloading wounded young people from a passenger jetliner with the seats removed and four vertical rows of stretcher hooks extending all the way down both sides of the aisle.
They Shall Not Grow Old allows the reminiscences of 70-year-old veterans to breathe life into the determined, youthful images Jackson shows us on screen. In so doing, we gain a much greater appreciation of “being a British soldier on the Western Front.”
But it could also have given movie-goers a glimpse into the part of war so rarely seen. It might then have been named, They Shall Suffer Horribly and Die Before Their Time. Hardly a formula for box office success… which is perhaps why war movies never go there, and why the next generation always signs up when their leaders beat the drum.