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Review of the documentary ‘They Shall Never Grow Old’

Posted by John T. Reed on

I just saw the new documentary “They Shall Never Grow Old” in a movie theater. Should you?

I’m glad I did, but I would not conclude all others would be. I would certainly recommend it to a teenager who thinks he wants to be a soldier and go to war—to cure him of that insanity. Yeah, we have to fight wars, but we do not have to volunteer for them.

Until recently, America has been proud of its citizen soldiers, a.k.a. draftees. They were drafted. They did their duty. They won. Some died. Others were wounded. Few volunteered. Many who did were just trying to get a bit more control than you get when you are drafted. My dad and uncles were drafted except for one who joined the Army in 1940 before the war—to get a job.

The vast majority of war movies are BS. The most realistic I ever saw was a miniseries called “Generation Kill” about our Iraq initial invasion. There is an interesting juxtaposition of BS war glory hype and war reality in the documentary: illustrations from a patriotic periodical of the time. 

They Shall Never Grow Old is also realistic, but it is very old such that war has changed quite a bit. It is also about British soldiers, all of whom seem to be orthodontic disasters, which will probably make it seem “that is not me” to American teenagers.

It is bloody and gritty which is the reality of war.

One of the main things that attracted me is it is the first movie of that era which looks real. It is largely colorized and more important, they adjusted the speed of every old movie they used by hand. Film of the early 1900s typically looks herky jerky. 
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The reason is the cameramen hand cranked the film at varying speeds as they were filming. When you play it on a modern projector, you are playing it back faster than it happened. This movie has WW I soldiers moving smoothly like current movies. Hard to relate to herky-jerky people of a century ago. Much easier to relate to them in this movie.

The sound is pretty real, although they said they recorded actual incoming artillery, but I doubt that. Outgoing artillery goes boom. Incoming make a more terrifying, ripping, crunching sound. The incoming in the movie goes boom.

The movie shows not only how war has changed in 100 years, but also society. The British soldiers in the movie expressed astonishment at how their own country had changed while they were on the other side of the English Channel for a mere two to four years—from 1914 to 1918.

Of course, you also have changes in Army tanks, vehicles, aircraft, soldiers’ personal weapons and equipment.

During my freshman year at West Point, the West Point Class of 1915 had its 50th reunion there—including their most famous graduate, President Eisenhower. They had served in WW I. We thought they were ancient.

Last May, I went to MY 50th reunion. I am not ancient. But when I watch video or talk to current WP grads about Iraq and Afghanistan, I am astonished at 50 years of changes.

In WW I and WW II and Korea and Vietnam, we soldiers had massive support from our nation. True, we Vietnam vets had an anti-war movement who hated us, but like those in prior 20th Century wars, we had all the ammo, food, medical care, artillery, and air support we needed. Our poor current soldiers nowadays are so unsupported we would have revolted in Vietnam if we suddenly had the rug yanked out from under us as the current soldiers have. 

For one thing, there were 553,000 American soldiers in South Vietnam which had 67,000 square miles. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we have a mere tens of thousands of soldiers—in countries with areas of 252,000 and 169,000 respectively. It is as if we Vietnam soldiers suddenly found ourselves in South Vietnam with one of every ten soldiers there with us and the other nine gone; one of every ten artillery batteries, one of every ten combat aircraft. We would have gone nuts complaining. But our current soldiers do not because ignorance is bliss. They do not know what a real war that is adequately supported by the US government looks like.

You can see what a war supported by its nation looks like in They Shall Not Grow Old. I suspect our current guys in combat would look at that movie and think, “Man, they got an awful lot of troops, ammo, vehicles, weapons, air power, artillery compared to us.”

Then there are the girls. In WW I, it was Madamoiselle From Armentiers and “how ya gonna keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” In WW II and the subsequent occupations, there were a zillion Americans who came home with war brides from U.K. and France and the nations we occupied after the war: Germany and Japan. Ditto somewhat in Korea and Vietnam.

These poor guys today have no bali hai, no Paris, no Rick’s Place in Casablanca, no Sydney—to all appearances, no female companionship. There is a segment in the They Shall Not Grow Old where they celebrate the madamoiselles at length. It was a blessed part of the 20th century wars for American soldiers.

When I was in high school, I would have thought I knew what the sentence “They shall not grow old” meant. Arithmetic. Soldiers are barely out of high school. They die in large numbers a those young ages. That is what “They shall not grow old” means.

Now, that sentence has a different meaning to me. “They” are my 20 classmates who were KIA in Vietnam. They had names and faces. None happened to be my friends, but I knew them or of them when we were cadets (706 in my class). There is a big difference between an abstract “they” and guys I double-dated with in college.

I have also not just survived the Vietnam war, but also grown old. So that phrase is no longer an abstraction. It is my wife, my three sons, my daughter-in-law, my grandkids, my grad school, my career as a writer, the home we had custom built and have lived in for 36 years, seeing my brothers and friends do the same, seeing my parents grow from their 30s to old age and death. That is the non-abstract version of what those KIA WW I soldiers missed.

So I hope young would-be soldiers will see it. But they will be me at age 17: not knowing what the title means except in the abstract. But at least it will show them what war means, the squalor, the blood, the dying, the terror, the exceeding of what human beings can handle in terms of skin and bone and psychological well-being.

“War is hell.” William Tecumseh Sherman, West Point Class of 1840. “They Shall Never Grow Old” DOES convey that truth quite well.

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