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'They Shall Not Grow Old': When Johnny Comes Marching Home for Good

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires Film Critic
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"They Shall Not Grow Old," a haunting documentary commissioned by Britain's Imperial War Museum to commemorate the centennial of the conclusion of World War I is a brilliant homage, an artistic accomplishment and a must-see for film students, history buffs and cineastes alike.
 
While director Peter Jackson's numerous "Hobbit" and "Lord of the Rings" fantasies have long established him as a box office juggernaut, this 99-minute paean to all who found themselves engulfed, devastated, changed forever or killed in the war that was supposed to end all wars compellingly adds "groundbreaking" to the adjectives describing his filmmaking prowess.
 
In authorizing its assignment, the museum instituted one strict rule: Jackson was to use only actual footage from the 100 hours that had survived the 10 decades since the end of hostilities, and the 600 or so hours of audio from actual survivors who had been interviewed as late as the 1970s. The resulting masterpiece not only made do with the available resources, but magically wrung from them a motherlode of information and thought heretofore locked away for the lack of technical ingenuity. Now it's in color and 3D. We are continually wowed by the achievement.
 
As Jackson and his ingenious complement of artisans mine secrets long hidden in celluloid previously thought to be unrestorable, we are amazed by both the process and the substance, and certainly more than a bit saddened by the realization that a race of beings so competent in this historical resurrection of facts and philosophies was nonetheless unable to avoid the cataclysms of its subject matter.
 
We peer with no small amount of sympathetic helplessness at the young men, many of them essentially stowaways who signed up before attaining the required age of 18. There is no escaping the glint of fatalism in their eyes, belying the bravado of comrades in arms, excited at what will be the adventure of their lives, the violent cause of their demise, or the beginning of an infirmity for all their remaining years. It's all there in the footage originally garnered by the brave pioneers of motion picture journalism, the guardians of posterity, long before any tin-pot authoritarian would dare call them the purveyors of fake news.
 
History is unrelenting in its honesty. Pick an age, any age, and then interpolate or extrapolate as the notion steers you. There you'll find the necessary truth of noble and generous heroes perennially fighting the good fight against greed and corruption. Surely we must defeat Hitlers and their would-be successors. But be wary of the evil fear monger, chanting us into his false conflicts. Contemplating those startled eyes of the young British soldiers who, as Tennyson poeticized, "Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die," we decry the profiteers of war.
 
While there is no empirical proof of conspiracy, in addition to the covetous grasp for real estate and the inbred stupidity of monarchs bereft of diplomacy or sympathy, it's fairly substantiated that arms manufacturers had their sway in the horror that murdered one million British soldiers. Flash forward to the documentation impeccably laid out in "Vice" (2018), the biopic about Vice President Dick Cheney's rise to power and the tremendous fortune accumulated through the war in Iraq. There, we are shockingly but matter-of-factly reminded of how even in a democratic government framed by brilliant minds who hoped for a destiny far more egalitarian, the scurrilous and gluttonous have used their power not for the good of the commonweal, but in the service of their insatiable pockets.
 
Hence, if it takes a war or so, what the hell. "Thins out the herd; improves the breed." And here we are, in 2019, begging for a comprehensive health plan, mere crumbs in the grand scheme of things, yet admonished by some that it will bankrupt us. But who's the Us they mean? In these so very young soldiers' gazes we sense a kindredness, as if they want to share a brief breath with us, to tell us, how in essence their fate symbolizes the mendacity of the ages.
 
Maybe the profoundly astute Dr. Rogers, professor and former Air Force ace, was a bit drunk when he angrily walked into his History of Labor class at 8:30 a.m. that Iowa morning in 1968. He strode to the blackboard and in foot-high letters wrote the word "Bauxite." 
 
"Want to know why we're in Vietnam?" he loudly asked. "That's why! Class dismissed."
 
Up until this point, that less than one minute lecture and a reading in high school of Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" served as the two most influential elements of my antiwar vehemence. I now add "They Shall Not Grow Old" to the cause, with the hope that one day the very idea of an antiwar book or movie will be a superfluous sentiment, the artefact of a barbarism long extinguished.
 
"They Shall Not Grow Old," rated R, is a Warner Bros. release directed by Peter Jackson and stars British soldiers who served in WWI. Running time: 99 minutes; the film opens at the Images Cinema in Williamstown on Feb. 22.

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