Why should we care about the experiences of WWI soldiers? How could anyone today relate to troops who fought in a war that happened over a century ago? Is there even any relevance to the world today? Similar to Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Ernest Hemingway’s Soldier’s Home, Peter Jackson’s documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” provides insight into the lives of servicemen during and after the Great War. All three effectively cultivate empathy for their characters or subjects in order to communicate a shared theme; no one wins a war. However, Remarque, Hemingway and Jackson each tell their stories from different perspectives and using different formats.
While All Quiet on the Western Front and Soldier’s Home use writing to connect readers to the stories of WWI soldiers, “They Shall Not Grow Old” uses the visual medium of archival film and photographs. Moreover, Remarque’s novel (told from the first-person perspective of a German soldier) and Hemingway’s short story (third-person narration of a US Marine’s life) both follow the stories of one fictional protagonist, whereas Jackson’s documentary depicts multiple experiences of many real life young British servicemen.
Nonetheless, a major similarity among these three pieces is their ability to evoke empathy from the audience. Through the voice of Remarque’s protagonist Paul Bäumer, the reader experiences the horrors of daily life on the front lines. In our imaginations, we see what Paul sees and sense what he feels. By the same token, while Hemingway’s Krebs might be desensitized after the war, we empathize with his feelings of alienation. The reader is drawn into Kreb’s world of isolation and his inability to reintegrate into society. In the same way, viewers relate to the images and footage of young soldiers sharing their stories in Jackson’s film. Seeing the faces and hearing the voices of the real life soldiers, the audience develops caring for the young men. We understand from the soldiers’ authentic accounts, that in reality, many Paul Baümers and Harold Krebs’ actually existed. All three works share a similar message; glory in war is a myth; death, gore and grime in war is reality.
To sum up, while Remarque, Hemingway and Jackson use different storytelling methods to share different perspectives, they equally succeed at creating empathetic portrayals of WWI soldiers. The fictional characters Paul Bäumer and Harold Krebs, along with Peter Jackson’s genuine young subjects are all compelling individuals the audience develops empathy towards and start to care about. Through reading and viewing soldiers’ stories from a war fought a hundred years ago, audiences today can develop an understanding on how fighting universally effects us.
In war, whichever side may call itself the victor, there are no winners, but all are losers.
Neville Chamberlain, 1938