Thursday, December 20, 2018

Review of 'They Shall Not Grow Old'

Technically it's amazing, but the content and the message are a bit unsettling. I'm used to the story about WW1 that it was a pointless slaughter, a hell on earth with lions led by donkeys and so on; and I'm increasingly familiar with the revisionist counter-narrative, that it was after all a heroic effort by our brave boys to make the world a better place, or to stop the nasty imperialist Germans making it into a worse one. But this film, in which there is no narrator, and in which the story is entirely told in the words of the soldiers, doesn't come down on one side or another. Many of the former soldiers, apparently talking years after the war, seem to have regarded it as all rather good fun, which made men of them, and to have not at all questioned what it was about or whether their sacrifices were worthwhile or not.

As the film progresses there are some darker accounts; men describing the deaths and maimings of their friends and comrades, but it's still interspersed with accounts of bayonet charges and even hand-to-hand fighting that could easily have come from a Boy's Own comic...indeed, some of those accounts are accompanied, not by actual footage, but by images that look like exactly those sort of comics - brave Tommies going over the top into hordes of grimacing Huns. It ends with accounts from men who returned home shattered to find that no-one was very interested to hear what had happened to them, and that they were turned away from jobs with 'No Ex-Servicemen Need Apply' signs.

And still this is interspersed with brighter stories.

Is this more effective in creating a nuanced picture of the war than an account that was all horror and regret would have been, or does it just allow everyone to carry on thinking what they wanted to? Not sure.

I started watching this on BBC iPlayer, but didn't have time to finish it. I downloaded the film so as to watch the rest on my phone, but it disappeared before I got the chance - downloads from iPlayer seem to be a lot of trouble and not work well. Fortunately it was also available via informal distribution, so I downloaded it, saved it on to a USB drive and watched it on the smart TV.

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