They Shall Not Grow Old: Remembering The Stories That Shape Us

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.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

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Zero Dark Thirty

Here are we again. Another predictable film. Another film which keeps you engaged, tense and uncertain despite the high-profile story. First it was Argo – taken from a still relatively obscure true source – a film with a plot you could have guessed given the set-up without seeing a minute of the film. As we said, though, there was much there going on which means that Argo is a genuinely tense and riveting work.

So to Zero Dark Thirty, arriving on a wave of controversy and award nominations; the former being the sort of the publicly raging opprobrium which means that the high-profile latter are unlikely to translate into shiny new statues. It’s from a more recent, more public story than Argo. As has been hard to avoid recently, Zero Dark Thirty is the latest film from Kathryn Bigelow, whose previous film hit awards gold with The Hurt Locker. As has also been impossible to escape, the film has been accused of condoning the CIA’s torture, as it tells the story for the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. In a variety of sources, I’ve heard the director accused of hastening moral decay and being compared to a Nazi propogandist. Boycotts of the film have been suggested.

There’s not much I can tell you about the plot – it’s all in the public domain, and it’s not as if the ending’s in any doubt for anyone who hasn’t been in a coma for the last few years. What it presents to us is a stark, disturbing, brilliant portrayal of the cycle of wickedness we too easily find ourselves in. The film starts in darkness; a black screen and the simple statement that what follows is based on first hand accounts. The words fade, the date September 11, 2001 appears and fades and a confused soundtrack of emergency calls, hurried conversations with loved ones and various officials plays. Then we’re into the torture and years of following paper trails, detainee testimonies, please for more resources, punctuated by the violent explosions of subsequent attacks. It’s physically dark – even in the Middle East sun the light seems slightly muted, much of the rest of film taking place in darkened rooms or at night; it’s emotionally dark  – if the 9/11 recreation was harrowing, for this Brit who lived in London at the time the 7/7 bombings, that re-creation was almost unbearably hard to watch. It’s morally dark too – central character Maya, the one obsessed with finding Bin Laden – starts standing uneasily on the edge of torture. By the end she greets an Obama declaration on a televised interview that the USA will cease to torture with nothing more than a hint of passing interest. She’s long since passed the point where she cares what she needs to do to find her target.

This is where some of the complexities throw, for me, some ironic light on some of the criticisms. The film presents torture as part of the process – a part of the process which degrades and numbs and dehumanises the perpetrators as much as the detainees. Maya’s descent into obsessed coldness slowly shuts out the rest of the world, with the end result of her, sitting alone in a military transport (because she’s ‘so important’, she’s told), speechless and shaken having seen Bin Laden’s body, tears breaking on her cheeks. She’s relieved, she’s successful – but she has nothing to return to. Simply put, I cannot see how this film can be understood as condoning torture. It simply presents it. Now there may be issues with the veracity of what is presented as fact; but sometimes Truth doesn’t have to be entirely true. It is most likely not entirely true; it is one interpretation of years’ worth of events in the space of two and a half hours. We can debate which interrogation aided or obscured the obtaining of which facts; what isn’t disputed is that some Americans, in what they believed was service of the country, tortured detainees to get information. They water-boarded; they crammed them into tiny wooden boxes; they stripped Muslim men naked in front of American women; they beat them; they put them in stress positions and exposed them to deafening noise. In Zero Dark Thirty we see it all – the success or otherwise is unclear, but the effect on all in the room is stark. Dark things are done in bleak, hollow rooms where time of day has no meaning. It’s a black hour for all involved (the title is a military term for half-past midnight, the hour the final attack on Bin Laden was launched).

So the film shows us the moral whirlpool which engulfed, and continues to engulf, so many. To catch mass-killers, to create any sense of safety from numerous future attacks, moral compromises were made. Is that condoned or condemned? I’m not sure it’s condemned, but it’s certainly not actively condemned. Does that mean the bravery and sacrifice of some involved can’t be honoured? Of course not. The whirlpool leads to chaos. The climactic assault on Bin Laden, at the titular time is pitch black and shot through with scarcely controlled chaos. We know how it will end, but still it’s throat-grabbing tense; with the added moral confusion that you can’t shake the awareness that you are watching the recreated death of actual people. People who were the parents of the presumably still living children whom the American soldiers shield from the worst. Even in the most tense and exciting moments, Zero Dark Thirty allows us no easy moral out.

This, then, maybe the source of the controversy the film has courted. Previously Bigelow has been praised for what some perceive her take on masculinity – what is seen by some as films about men shot through with testosterone. All of which is, of course, a form of prejudice which insults both women and men; it carries the implication that if a woman makes a film about a military subject it must be because she wants to talk about men (not, you know, the bigger issues of war and militarism). There’s also the whiff there that men make one type of film, women another. Well that’s shot to shreds in this film. We have strong women who are, well, women and strong and as affected by what they do as the men. Maybe Bigelow actually just makes films about people.

Maybe it’s having that interperative rug pulled from under them which has made some so vitriolic in identifying her non-existant support of torture. Many of those so vocal on this were the same ones who lined the streets of New York shouting and singing the day of Bin Laden’s death. They want, some of these people, the celebration, the victory, the evil mastermind vanquished but not to have to face what that has done to those who have actually done it. That’s not to excuse what they may have done; that’s not to dishonour bravery and sacrifice even as we critique – but what Zero Dark Thirty does so powerfully is show us the moral and physical cost of doing in secret the result of which was so loudly trumpeted in public, show us just how low the self-styled leaders of the free world (and in this I include my native Britain) sunk to bring catharsis. It seems to me that in asking such questions, Bigelow has exposed a deep moral confusion at the heart of the Western response to the still young century’s defining global conflict.

Zero Dark Thirty is a better, more urgent film than The Hurt Locker, a film which also probed the addictive drug that war becomes to those who have to actually do it. It asks deeper questions and asks us to look at means at well as ends. It asks us to think and choose, to qualify and query, to pause and consider what has become of us.  As a Christian, my vocabulary gives me the language of universal sin and redemption universally offered. That’s the sort of journey Zero Dark Thirty takes us on; it’s not a comfortable or easy one. It is emphatically important to take it nevertheless.

I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Brothers: A Miniature On A Big Canvass

Brothers is an English language remake of a Danish film I haven’t seen,  nevertheless it feels a little familiar. It’s an Afghanistan themed story of an American military family. One son is a Marine, like his father. He goes off to Afghanistan to fight, leaving his wife and children behind. The other brother, recently released from prison has never served and is the family disappointment. When the news comes of the death of the brother serving abroad, family relationships are put under even greater pressure. The widow and her children grow closer and closer to the other brother who finds a new sense of vision and responsibility.

SPOILER ALERT – SKIP TO NEXT PARAGRAPH TO AVOID MEDIUM LEVEL PLOT SPOILER

Having no familiarity with the original film, I don’t want to spoil what comes at all. Suffice to say – especially if you’ve seen the trailer – it all gets very emotionally complex. The serving brother isn’t dead, he was captured. He, and all the family relationships are inevitably changed on his return. What follows that is a striking and surprising process of pressure on relationships being cranked up to and and beyond breaking point

As you would expect from Jim Sheridan, director of In The Name Of The Father, this film is good on many of the little of things – the rituals of military influenced masculinity, the communications through deeds more than conversation, the passion and suspicion hidden behind simple words and actions. This is aided by some well-cast and effective performances – Tobey Maguire is just right as the marine brother, Jake Gyllenhaall brings the right sort of confusion and guilt to the other brother, while Natalie Portman strikes just the required level of feminine uncertainty in a world of masculine assertion; before this film I hadn’t quite realised how much she can communicate with silence and simple words. The supporting cast of family and colleagues all work well too. It’s not a political film – which is unusual for Jim Sheridan. That’s fine, tough. To make a good film about a war, sometimes you need not to focus on the war itself, which Sheridan does effectively.

I had no idea where this film was going in the final third, and it was all the better for that. Yes its melodramatic, but that’s no bad thing. War is a very big thing, and while this has none of the grandstanding of Platoon and the like, the big emotions and events of the melodramatic climaxes do justice to the shadow this war and the events around cast over a generation’s view of the world – even those who will not fight. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a good film, convincingly painting a miniature of family life on a big emotional canvass. To learn something of what war abroad and conflict at home does to a family and a generation, all wrapped in a plot whose final destination is a real surprise, this is as good a place as any to start.