I will never forget talking with an old school friend in the pub after he got back from the first Gulf War in 1991. He had left school at 16 and joined the army just as I went into the Sixth Form. In the Gulf he served as an officer in a tank regiment.
At the time I knew nothing about war apart from via Hollywood films. His stories could not have been more different. He spoke bluntly about the mind-numbing boredom of waiting in the desert for 6 months while the Iraqi forces were bombed. And then the chaos, confusion and inhumanity of what happened as they advanced through the enemy lines.
I remember not really knowing what to say.
We were both 19, but he seemed a lot older.
His words came back to me as I sat through Peter Jackson’s remarkable film, They Shall Not Grow Old earlier today. Its all about soldiers fighting on the Western front during World War One.
The incredible thing about the film is how vividly it brings the soldiers experience to life. Every single word spoken during the film is said by actual veterans. This makes it a film not about politics or military strategy, but simply about people.
Enthusiasm to fight
What struck me is how many speak about their desire to enlist due to their drab and boring jobs. We have a tendency to victimise those sent to the battle-fields but what struck me was their enthusiasm to fight. Whilst there is no holding back on the horror of war, there is a huge absence of self-pity. The men speak of having a ‘job of work’ to do and of their willingness to get on with it.
Another striking element is how young so many were. You were supposed to be 19 to enlist but thousands of 15 and 16 year old boys signed up, often with the collusion of the authorities. Watching the film sitting next to my 15 year old son brought this reality home to me.
The other key element is Jackson’s restoration of the old film. The two elements are the re-adjustment of the speed of the jerky old film and the colouring of the black and white footage. The impact of both of these changes is to humanise the people you see in a remarkable way. They are transformed from being distant historical figures to young men you relate to.
The footage which I found most powerful was that of captured German soldiers carrying injured British soldiers, assisting with the medical help and chatting to their ‘enemies’. Many British soldiers talk about the respect they had for the Germans as they realised how much they had in common. It is a stark reminder of the tragic idiocy of war.
Another aspect of the tragedy of WW1 was the lack of understanding that men faced when they returned home. Many wives and families were either unable or unwilling to comprehend what the soldiers had been through. It is a shame they could not have seen this film.
Like many novelists and war poets before him, Peter Jackson has us all a great service by helping us understand better the reality of people’s experiences. It is a much needed antidote to the heroic Hollywood rubbish that passes for ‘war films’. Nothing could be better to watch as part of Remembrance. As my son said as we left the cinema:
‘That is by far the best thing on war that I have ever seen.’
‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ is being shown on BBC2 Sunday 11th November at 9.30pm