Too often Memorial Day is anything but what it’s supposed to be — a solemn remembrance of our nation’s war dead. Most Americans get caught up in the “first-holiday-of-the-summer” mode, even though the summer solstice is still more than three weeks away.
Equally discouraging is the fact that so many Americans are quite ignorant of our nation’s history, especially as it relates to war. According to the Wall Street Journal, the number of history majors has declined more rapidly than any other major in academia, which certainly doesn’t help.
What was missed, forgotten, or just outright dismissed was the centennial anniversary of the end of the Great War this past November that coincided with Veteran’s Day.
This is no coincidence.
At the conclusion of the Great War, the celebration that ensued on Nov. 11, 1918, was known as Armistice Day. In 1938, Congress made Nov. 11 a national holiday to honor all veterans, most especially those of the Great War. It would be a year later that the Great War would be forever known in historical annals as World War I, as World War II embarked in Europe on Sept. 1, 1939.
In order to bring World War I to life and to memorialize those brave men who fought in such atrocious conditions in the trenches throughout France to preserve Western civilization, English director and producer Peter Jackson was able to use computer technology to remaster some archival footage of the war borrowed from England’s Imperial War Museum.
Despite its strictly British flavor, Jackson’s exceptional documentary, “They Shall Not Grow Old,” should be required viewing for all American students. The documentary was released to theaters last fall and coincided with the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918.
Tragically, that anniversary arrived to little or no salute.
Jackson’s own paternal grandfather, Sgt. William Jackson, to whom the film is dedicated, fought in the war. Jackson’s film transformation is supernatural given that the initial equipment was so primitive that produced grainy black and white pictures with no sound that stayed packed away for nearly a century.
Jackson is able to waltz the documentary from the distant and isolated era of the silent film across the haze of time, not as some “Charlie Chaplin-type figures,” but to a colorized and conversing cinematic version of authenticity — unique in the saga of documentary film production.
For all those souls who fought, with many paying the ultimate price, they have once again have returned to the battlefield transcending time like an army of ghosts on a landscape.
The colorized details are, at times, vexing with its soundtrack provided by the surviving veterans as their heartfelt narration paints and complements the story of a war that has been lost on the American conscience for generations.
Reflecting on their experiences more than a half a century later, some of whom were only 16 years old or younger when they enlisted, the recounting is overwrought with political incorrectness. Such bluntness does a notable job of turning impersonal statistics and a once grainy black and white film into an earnest and compassionate story. Jackson is able to cultivate a renewed awareness of a war that was a brutal and horrific campaign that cost what most historians agree was more than 16 million lives.
The documentary highlights what life was like in the trenches of the Western Front, an ordeal that haunted many intrepid veterans long before the psychology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder knew who they were.
Before attacking “over the top” in one trench, one solider stares hauntingly at the camera as if he could see me staring back at him. Jackson explains when that scene was filmed, most of those men “were in the last 30 minutes of their lives.”
Curiosity by the soldiers for the new technology was unmistakable, and who knew what we now consider unsophisticated and even crude, would memorialize these veterans well into the next century for generations yet conceived.
The common thread running through these intrepid veterans was realistic as it was refreshing: “It was a job that had to be done, and so we went over and did it.”
Earlier this month, this innovative documentary was released on DVD and on this Memorial Day it needs to find a home in your library.