Last week I went to see the premiere of Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, which was followed by a Q and A with the director. As interviewer Mark Kermode elicited from him during the post-film conversation, this is probably the film of which Jackson (Lord of the Rings etc) is most proud.
The technical achievement alone was remarkable. He gave insights into some of the feats: employing lipreaders to work out what soldiers in the 1914-18 Imperial War Museum footage were actually saying so that contemporary actors could overdub; Jackson himself locating the original script of a battle instruction in a library in the Midlands; the painstaking colourisation work carried out by an American team aligned with the justification of so many different film speeds in the originals.
The film manages like nothing else ever seen about the war to humanise it, to give identity to the men who fought, died and survived. And one of the most fascinating insights, which again Jackson concentrated on in his talk, was the theme running through so many of the survivors’ testimonies: not only had they looked forward to going to war, but many of them actively enjoyed the whole experience. One described it “like being on a camping trip although with a little more danger thrown in”.
When the survivors returned home in 1918 (and Jackson points out that the million who died were not able to give their own postwar testimonies) they found a country largely embarrassed by their presence, neighbours and workmates and families who simply didn’t want to hear their stories of bloodshed and horror.
But the fact remains that many of them did look back on their experiences with what one can only call nostalgia. For those years as they survived together, they lived a life which gave them meaning, direction, hope. Back in 1982 when I was reading the submissions pile for publishers Robert Hale, I used to read endless autobiographies of men who had served in World War Two. I suppose at that time, many of them were hitting retirement and so wished to set down their memories. The same theme ran through all of those autobiographies: the men – and we are obviously talking about men – who served in the Second World War looked back on the existential freedom which war provided them with a huge sense of loss. Some admitted in their typescripts to horrific levels of violence on the battlefield but none evinced the slightest sense of regret. All clearly saw their war years as the time when they most felt alive and all to a greater or lesser extent struggled to match that sense in the years that followed.
This contrasts significantly to the fascinating descriptions in Max Hastings’ new history of Vietnam, which I’m just getting to the end of, where he describes the breakdown in discipline amongst the American troops from about 1969 on. Amidst a blur of cannabis, heroin and booze, American men began to turn on their own officers, killing them with grenades and fragmentation bombs as the nightmare of that country’s involvement in Vietnam staggered to its inevitable and tragic end. American men didn’t come home from Vietnam in the early ’70s with any kind of regret, they came home confused and angry, so much so that the wounds from Vietnam in America’s politics have yet even to begin to heal.
Perhaps WWI and WWII were the last conflicts which still took place within a social ethos of obedience, respect for authority and straightforward patriotism. It remains fascinating and shocking, watching Jackson’s brilliant film, to see and hear for the first time how men could regret the passing of a war.