Throughout the documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, I experienced a variety of profound emotions, ranging from sadness to confusion to hopelessness. I am cognizant that I cannot begin to fully understand or relate to the lives of the soldiers in World War 1, as I have never had to experience such a destructive event. That being said, the gruesome imagery and depictions of death so easily discussed provided a window into the unfiltered lives of the soldiers, allowing me to see the harsh reality of war. When hearing of the age of the soldiers enlisting, the stories’ poignancy was only enhanced. I have lived a fairly sheltered life, all things considered, so it seems unfathomable to imagine friends and family members of similar age in the same situation. Knowing that the soldiers had family and friends who loved them equally as much as I love mine is terrifying. No one speaks of the individual losses, always referring to the deaths on a grand scale, so hearing about their identities, aspirations, families, and lives made the authenticity and individuality of their characters all the more real.
How the film used colorization and sound restoration to give life to the war bridged the gap between past and present, humanizing the soldiers and giving them personality in a way that made it even more difficult to watch. It is one thing to hear of the horrors of war through statistics and history books, however, the realism that this film provided and having to watch the horrors unfold for myself was a stark reminder that they were just ordinary people thrust into a devastating situation. The most crushing realization was the juxtaposition between the innocent, and even excited young men, enlisting, to the harsh reality of the brutal warfare and conditions on the front lines. It was heartbreaking to think that most of these boys, who were once full of enthusiasm, never made it back home. This reality puts into perspective just how much they sacrificed for their countries, and provided a renewed sense of gratitude and appreciation for those who gave their lives for the cause.
If we talk about war, I will always be scared. I think it all started when all of my friends were obsessed with World Wars or Anna Frank. I never understood their enthusiasm and their passion about any of this; In fact I am quite sure I exhausted my dad in this topic. It became a regular thing that for three years, from when I was seven to ten years old, there was not a week that passed without me asking him once or twice a week, what would happen if a terrible war started in Mexico? What would he do? Would he stay and fight? or would we move to another country; He always answered me the same thing like something prerecorded. “I’ll stay here and fight for my country, but you my little girl, I will always make sure that your sisters, your mom and you are safe.” Then he would see me with my red eyes nearly crying and try to calm me down saying that I had nothing to worry about, that Mexico could not get into war, even if they tried. I was terrified of war and he knew it.
How can all these people sign in for war? If you ask me despite the fact that I am not an expert, I would blame the imagery. Looking at the pictures of the documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” I am in fact convinced that a picture is worth a thousand words. If a thousand words can change your opinion about something I assure you that a good picture can too. There is a huge variety of images in the documentary, however I have decided to separate them into two categories:
Propaganda imagery that uses sexism to make people stand up with weapons by using well thought phrases directed to men and kids, for them to get soaked in courage and have no regrets at all! By using phrases such as “It’s just a big game!” clearly directed to kids and “Just a job!” for men gives us a tremendous importance about people’s perspective in that time that sadly is still there currently.
The other type of images I call them “look what we can do” or “look what they did to us”. What these pictures do is just make people mad. This is not direct propaganda, but still is. Historical pictures taken in war that you might see in a museum wake up emotions of frustration and anger, making most of them at that time nationalist. The consequence of this was that no matter what people lived in that living inferno that they refused to talk about, they were just trying to have more people signing in. It did not matter the life you had ahead of you, because they did not have the time to think about that.
For me it is really disappointing that after all, now and then, images of the terrible things that happened in war are still going to “play” or “do the job” if necessary. I think we as humans can not relate or even try to empathize with what happens or what they suffer. We only want to feel courageous and powerful no matter what.
I was surprised at the beginning of the film, They Shall Not Grow Old, because of all the young people who enlisted in the war as if it were a game. Children of my age or a little older were signing up to their deaths as if it were the soccer team. This fearsome thought got me thinking about what would occur if there was a war in this century, how hesitant me and the people I know would be in joining the bloodshed. Throughout the film there were the voices of veteran soldiers explaining their thoughts and feelings about what was happening and every last of them expressed excitement and a sense of wonder which made me feel very uneasy.
I was particularly disgusted in the way they pressured kids to lie about their age and bully them into enrolling in the military. Soldiers usually had to be 19 years of age to be able to do this but everyone pretended to know none the better when it came to it. I remember one story that one of the veterans told. The young veteran had gone to enlist in WW1 but he was only 15 as he told the officer and to his and my surprise he was told to go then come back and say he was 19. I’ve always pictured soldiers as these robotic killing machines so it is hard for me to imagine them as adolescents with real life families strapped with guns.
As the movie went on, the illusion that it was just a big game continued to fade. No man’s land was shown to be plagued by the deaths of both British troops and the German ones. It was haunting for me to see the surface of how much violence there was, the artillery barrage killing countless people in mere seconds or the gut-wrenching images of soldiers getting their heads blown off by the seemingly endless rain of machine gun bullets. There were stories told of the men hiding in holes in the ground to avoid getting killed but their teammates were not as lucky as they were bleeding to their death right next to brave soldiers.
I am glad that I watched these men telling their perspectives in the war because I have learned to understand the emotions that were felt during the harrowing days fighting.
The movie started in the vintage tones of black and white. Rows, and rows of boys with childish smiles as though it were Christmas morning, being marched to and unknowing point of no return. Proud to be serving the country and land they were born and brought up on.
The innovation of the camera brings a wondering look to many of the young faces as they march down roads or wait to be sent to the frontlines, and looking through these cameras brings a look of sorrow to my own.
As the film fades into colour, it feels surreal. The amount of young innocent youth marching into the loss of memories and joy to come. 600 in, 100 out, “we’ll get em’ next time”. This is the heart wrenching reality that was portrayed as “the battle plan” in the film ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’.
I feel great amounts of sorrow for all the poor mothers who had to watch their boys leave home with no return. I love my mother very much and I know if I even thought of going to war, she’d hold me down. The love in her heart is to passionate and overflowing to let me risk the rest of my life for a battle where very few feel they have won.
I felt a connection to this movie when the British soldiers jumped out of their trenches for the first time. These soldiers simultaneously knew exactly what they had to do while also knowing nothing about the situation. The goal of killing Germans is all they needed to know to push through. As they endure chaos and trauma they are numb. Nothing else to feel or see because they’ve felt and seen it all. As the veterans said, in no-mans-land you start to think about your past. You do this because in moments of fear, reminiscing of simpler times is easier than processing the present. They might start to remember playing outside on the streets as a schoolboy, or how much they cherished a special toy. As a soldier, you start to wonder, “Am I going to become just like the others? Lying dead in the dirt, with such a rich past shot into nothing”. I understand how the soldiers felt as here they describe how weeks of training and years of living amount to this small but crucial point in their lives. I connect with the soldiers to the extent that your whole life is resting on one event. For them, this event is being killed, for me, this event determines the rest of my childhood. Until I am 18, I’ll be forced into change. Tell me, and the soldiers, how are we supposed to live stagnant with the fact that our lives will never be the same?
From Keith Law:
All Quiet on the Western Front took home nine nominations for this year’s Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best international Feature (as Germany’s submission). It is, as you might know, adapted from Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel of World War I. It’s big, and epic, and certainly lets you know where everyone involves stands on the subject of war. (They think it’s bad.) It’s also a film that doesn’t have any good reason to exist.
You can read the entire review here.