Much of human life can be understood as an attempt to keep something alive in the face of the reality of death. It could be the memories of loved ones, having children, leaving something to our children, achievements that will ensure we are spoken of long after we have died. It could be anything. The older we get the more aware we are of our mortality and we turn attention to what we will leave behind us.
This is one of the unique aspects of being human. We live with a profound awareness of our own death, and with that comes a seemingly inbuilt desire to outlive it. If the Biblical author is right this is in part explained by the understanding that God has ‘set eternity in the hearts of people.’ Other traditions have different understandings of this; but few seem to deny its reality. Societies wrestle with this on a larger scale; a key question is how to ensure that future generations don’t lose sight of the lessons of the past and so repeat the mistakes of their ancestors. In South Africa, for example, as the ‘born free’ generation (the first generation born after apartheid officially fell) grows into adulthood there is an increasingly urgent discussion about what stories and monuments must be kept and which should fall. These are conversations replete with emotion and fear, a sense of the widening gap between generations. Older generations want their stories preserved and learned from; younger generations want their unique voices heard, freed from the shackles of having to do what they’re told by people still perceived to fighting yesterday’s battles.
Global conflicts are perhaps the biggest example of this. How we remember them and keep the stories alive, without glorifying immense suffering or sentimentalisation is an increasingly fraught debate. This year we have recently marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, a date that leads to acts of remembrance in many countries involved in that war. As the gap between 11/11/1918 and the present day has widened, so has the diversity of opinions in how to mark these anniversaries. Red poppies? White? None? On football shirts or not? A minute’s silence at sporting events? And so on.
If one’s own family was not – like mine, as far as I know – directly affected by the conflict, it’s hard to connect with these events. With a Jewish heritage on one side of my family – my Grandmother’s family had a narrow escape from the death camps – I have a more natural connection with the 1939-45 conflict. It seems like part of my story; World War One feels like something more abstract and theoretical.
Enter film-maker Peter Jackson The New Zealand Director (best know for the Lord Of The Rings films), was approached by London’s Imperial War Museum to create something out of their archive material to mark the anniversary. The result is hallmark Jackson – technologically groundbreaking and in many respects completely overwhelming. Film as old as 100 years often operates at a variety of different speeds – sometimes within the same reel – so first of all the selected material had to be altered to be of a universal speed; in itself no small task. Then the images, obscured and clouded over the years, were cleaned up. Then they were colourised. To cap it all, soundless images were given a soundtrack – be it birdsong, an explosion or an actor bringing words to silently moving lips through the work of forensic lip-readers, with regional accents appropriate to the soldiers on-screen. The finished product – which in other hands could have been tacky, laboured or too worthy – is truly remarkable. It is called They Shall Not Grow Old.
The story of the declaration of war, joining up and training is told in black and white, a small television-sized box in the middle of the screen; as throughout the whole 90 minutes, recordings taken of veterans in the 1960s tell the bulk of the story from their own point of view. Then, as the soldiers arrive in France, colour and contextual sound spread to fill the viewer’s senses; the overlaid storytelling continues, with the background noise occasionally breaking through to the foreground. All of a sudden distant black and white faces seem to be peering in the viewer’s eyes – and soul. As the story of attack after attack is told, we see images relating to what the narrators are describing – maimed bodies, stumbling survivors, soldiers puffing on a cigarette. As the loss resulting from one attack is described, the camera pans slowly over a large group shot of soldiers gathering, smiling in a mystified, excited and oh so alive way right back at you; at one point, one of them says something; “We’re going to be on film!” he says. Everyone on-screen laughs; so do you.
It’s not uncommon for a cinematic experience to be described in pseudo-religious terms. Transcendent, an epiphany. This films offers that, and in doing so it seems almost unfair to describe it like one would any other film; it sits apart, a unique act of artistic remembrance that has the capacity to change minds and hearts. To keep the dead alive.
We all want to do that – keep the dead alive. It’s impossible. The idea that an aged relative who served in a war – or experienced something equally unusual – can tell his stories to younger generations so they can understand may be worthy, but it is by nature dying off as the people do. So how do we do so? How do we remember? They Shall Not Grow Old gives us one way; it allows the voices themselves to speak, allowing us to hear and see them for ourselves. At no point are we lectured; we’re not told this is ‘good for us’ or that this is ‘important’. It is not ‘worthy’, in the worst sense of that word. The story is simply told in the first person, and we simply listen and watch.
Remembering – more helpfully understood as retelling a story – is part of our human identity. Which is why it lies at the heart of our religious worship. For Christians the retelling of the central narrative of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection – Communion, Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, Mass – is the central act of thanksgiving. We retell the story, we take some of it tangibly in to us in the form of bread and wine, and our thankfulness is renewed. For some of us that is a weekly part of worship, a natural part of our life so familiar that as we grow old we may find that we no longer need a written text to help us say and hear the words; it has seeped in to the fabric our lives. Other Christian traditions see it as such a special occasion as to only mark it a few times a year. For some it is cloaked in ritual; for other it is clothed in profound but relaxed intimacy. Whatever it looks like, remembering is at the heart of our worship.
It would be too much to describe the remembering Peter Jackson’s film provokes in us in these religious terms. There is none of the elevation of the dead as perfect sacrificial heroes that can occasionally seem to accompany other acts of remembrance. Instead our narrators describe how they were lied to about the war, how they were considered “the refuse of the industrial system’; how they ‘weren’t to think for ourselves’. They signed up to heroically serve their country lest the women in their towns and cities adorn them with the white feather of cowardice; they ended up mercifully shooting dead fatally wounded men drowning a slow death in the mud and understanding themselves as ‘like rabbits, hunted by mankind’. There is no glory or heroism; instead individual tragedy is given a name and a face and a voice.
Simply put, the film is not an invitation to do something specific; it is an invitation to listen to a story, and let the story do the work it needs to do in you. As powerful an experience as it is, it will keep doing so days and weeks and months and years after you’ve seen it. In doing so, it has added mysterious layers to my awareness of what I am doing as I participate in the retelling of the 2000-year old story that stands as the pivot of history. It questions afresh the myth of redemptive violence and entices thankfulness that I, and my children, do not have to sign up to what these young men signed up to. It leads me to a rededication to retelling the story that shapes my life, that we all locate ourselves in that story.