They Shall Not Grow Old

World War I ended just over 100 years ago.  There are some people who were living during the years of the Great War who remain alive today.  Somehow, though, World War I seems to belong to a much more distant past.  A war in which the primary modes of transportation were horses and steam engines, between countries governed by kings, kaisers, czars, and sultans, seems to belong in the 19th century, not the 20th.  The existence of only scratched, herky-jerky footage of men marching in strange uniforms doesn’t help to give the war any more modern immediacy, either.

THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLDThey Shall Not Grow Old takes dead aim at the last point.  It brings the men who fought in the Great War for Great Britain into closer focus — and puts them in a light that the people of the 21st century can understand.

Filmmaker Peter Jackson was given access to more than 100 hours of film shot by the British that has been gathering dust in the British War Museum and, as he explains in his introduction to the film, was told that his assignment was to do something different with it.  He looked at hours of scratched, often overexposed or underexposed film, shot at different speeds by hand-cranked cameras, and initially was at a loss about how to approach the assignment.  But he decided to apply modern technology, computer imaging, and careful colorizing techniques, and the results are jaw-dropping.  Forget the scratchy, blurred, quick-stepping soldiers you remember, and be prepared for a movie that brings those soldiers to life.  (If you go to see the film this weekend, you’ll also have a chance to watch a very interesting 30-minute film after the credits have run, in which Jackson explains how the refurbishing of the film was done and also shows that he has an amazing collection of World War I uniforms, weapons, and other memorabilia.)

The technology employed isn’t the only thing that distinguishes They Shall Not Grow Old from other documentaries.  If you’re expecting any kind of narrative arc that explains the causes of World War I, the alliances, the kings and czars and assassinated archdukes that triggered a senseless global conflict — or, for that matter, attempts to establish any kind of broader historical context — you’ll be disappointed.  The film’s focus is on the soldiers, period, and is narrated using clips of BBC interviews of Great War veterans that were conducted decades ago.  We see, and hear, why they enlisted, how they were trained, what they ate, how they performed other bodily functions, and what it was like when they went home — but mostly, about life in the front lines in one of the most brutal, deadly wars ever fought.  Be prepared to learn about the horrors of rats, and lice, and trench foot, and frostbite, and mustard gas, and brace yourself for footage of insects crawling on the bodies of dead humans and horses alike.  (And Americans should also get ready for some close-up exposure to human teeth the likes of which you’ve never seen before.)

Not surprisingly, many of the images are immensely powerful.  I won’t soon forget the hopelessly terrified, blank face face of one young soldier, eyes bulging with intense fear, moments before a big battle that he knew he wasn’t likely to survive, or a soldier in the aftermath of a battle clutching a small dog to his chest and possessively stroking its fur, or a battle-scarred veteran walking away from the front lines, right hand shaking uncontrollably.  And the footage of soldiers passing the time, and mugging for cameras that were a novelty in those days — such as the soldiers who gave the impromptu concert pictured above, in which one of them strummed a beer bottle — will change your view of these young men, so that you never again think of them as ancient, herky-jerky marchers from a forgotten earlier day.

The title of the film comes from a line in the poem For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon, which was written in 1914 in the early days of the war.  The particular verse reads:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning 
We will remember them.
They Shall Not Grow Old helps to bring that sentiment to reality.  It’s well worth the price of a movie ticket.
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The Revenant

The Revenant probably isn’t the best date night movie out there, but it is a movie that you have to see in a theatre if you are going to see it at all.  This is one film that is designed for a big screen and a high-end sound system.  I can’t imagine that watching it on a TV screen, even the largest at-home unit, would provide anything even remotely close to the power of the movie in a theatre.

And make no mistake about it:  The Revenant is an extremely powerful sensory experience.  It tells a story of a frontiersman, Hugh Glass, in the wilderness in the 1820s.  The wilderness itself is a key, Jekyll-and Hyde character in the film.  You are entranced by its beauty — the towering trees, the magnificent snow-covered landscapes, the rocky mountainous crags, and the rushing, foaming rapids, all of which are beautifully framed and photographed — and suddenly the snowy white wilderness becomes a rumbling, snarling, blood-spattered horror show of bear maulings and Native American attacks and desperate attempts to survive at all costs.

revenant-snow-xlargeWe learn from flashbacks that Glass married a Native American, had a son, and then saw his wife killed in an attack on their village.  After a trapping party for which he serves as guide is decimated by a Native American attack, Glass and his son and the remainder of the trappers escape.  As they make their way back to their fort, Glass is badly mauled by a bear and desperately injured.  The main party moves on, but Glass’ son Hawk and two other trappers remain behind with him.  One trapper, Fitzgerald, decides that staying with Glass is simply too dangerous and that Glass will die, anyway, so he kills Hawk as the other trapper is away, while Glass is too injured to do anything about it, and then convinces the other trapper to leave Glass behind.  The rest of the movie is about Glass’ relentless effort to overcome his devastating injuries and countless obstacles, find food, and survive to find Fitzgerald and avenge his son.

Leonardo diCaprio is wholly convincing as Glass.   He attacks, with gusto, a role in which he is clawed and bitten by a bear, gratefully eats raw fish and raw liver for sustenance, sleeps naked in the hollowed out carcass of a horse to survive a blizzard, and receives countless injuries.  It’s as good a piece of physical acting as you’re going to see, and diCaprio deserves his Oscar nomination.  Tom Hardy is also exceptional as John Fitzgerald, the trapper frontiersman who just wants to get paid and go to a place like Texas that isn’t an ice-cold death trap.  Both Glass and Fitzgerald are subject to their own survival instincts, which inevitably make them adversaries who must fight to the death.   Their story is told against the backdrop of a larger tragic drama in which rapacious white men are moving into the lands of the indigenous peoples, and the performances of the many Native Americans in the film also are compelling.

One final point — the movie is a triumph of cinematography.  From its extreme close-ups even during violent, knife-wielding fight scenes, to the brilliantly staged and brutally realistic bear attack, to the jaw-dropping scene where the camera follows Glass and his horse as they plunge over a cliff onto the top of a huge evergreen tree below, The Revenant will make you think long and hard about the wonders of cinematography and the art of filmmaking.  I don’t know enough about how duties are apportioned on a moviemaking crew to properly give credit to the right people, but whoever brought the many mind-boggling scenes to the big screen — from director Alejandro Inarritu to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to the producers, camera crew, and key grips — deserves a lifetime achievement award.