We’re Here, Because We’re Here, Because We’re Here

Peter Jackson’s film They Shall Not Grow Old plunges the audience into the filth and violence of the Western Front. The 3-D format puts the viewer right into the trenches alongside the men. It blends colourised and enhanced film footage with audio recordings of the memories of the veterans who fought there, both from from the Imperial War Museum’s archives. The film also does something extraordinary: a team of professional lip-readers worked out what the soldiers were saying in the silent footage, and we hear them speaking, often accompanied by artillery barrages and the noise of mechanised warfare. The veterans say it was a great experience to have served; they put up with the death of friends, the threat of their own imminent extinction or mutilation, and the ordure and the rotting corpses all around them. They muddled through. They believed in what they were doing. One man says he would do it all over again. Most of the voices in the audio material belonged to private soldiers or NCOs. The only literary voice was that of Lt. Edmund Blunden (whose ‘Undertones of War’ is one of the classics of Great War writing). The film is free of the ‘lions-led-by-donkeys’ narrative that has influenced the view that succeeding generations have had of the conflict. In fact, the film is free of narrative altogether. There is no attempt to set things in context, and some historical events are jumbled together: tanks were not used at the start of Battle of the Somme in July 1916, footage of which is the centrepiece of the film (there was apparently no filming of the front line before the ‘Big Push’). This might be confusing if the film was presented as a stand-alone account of the fighting, but it is intended to accompany a teaching pack for schools which would give the historical context. The point is not to be didactic, but immersive. Inexplicably, the BritishBoard of Film Classification has certified the film as 15. In a speech on 1 October 2018 the Prime Minister looked forward to the time after the UK leaves the European Union and related it to what she thinks happened here a hundred years ago: ‘we must recapture that spirit of common purpose because the lesson of that remarkable generation is clear: if we come together there is no limit to what we can achieve’. At the end of the film, we hear veterans say they could not find work, as many employers refused to hire ex-servicemen. One can only guess whether it occurred to Mrs May that she was comparing the global catastrophe of 1914-18 with Brexit.  But she may have touched on a deeper truth: that swathes of people, like the soldiers in the film, will put up with almost any amount of misery if they think it is worthwhile, even if it is not obviously in their interests (as being blown to bits by shellfire while standing in a rat-infested open drain isn’t). They will be sardonic, and humorous, and brave, and comradely, and will mock the pretensions of their leaders: but they will accept their fate. This willingness to muddle through is both admirable and depressing. We put up with too much and make too few effective complaints. It is also dangerous because it gives leaders scope to inflict great damage with virtual impunity. We’re here because we’re here.

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