Old photographs have always turned a page in my head. I can remember as a child staring at the colorless faces atop my Grandmother’s dresser. Asking who they were. Marvelling at their faces being forever frozen in time.
As I grew older I remember looking at some of the faces in my history book with a particularly heavy heart. Paying close attention to the date and city listed in the captions. When I was 13 I walked underneath the shoes in the Holocaust museum knowing I’d never be the same. My eyes had never seen such unspeakable things for their own. Body parts. Internalizing that it happened. How every single person in each photo was real. Looking at their faces. Their souls lingering still.
I’ve always felt a connection to old photographs, and the stories they offer. Perhaps because so much of my life was dealt due to fate and chance. In an instant, everything can be different. When I first saw the trailer for ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ my affection for the film was instantaneous. I imagine that sounds rather bizarre, but the sentimental connection to the images displayed on the screen immediately pulled me in. If we could always know the stories of strangers, their would be no misunderstanding. I firmly believe that. Whole heartedly and somewhat foolishly. When I looked at the image above, I saw their stories. Each one of them would have been over 120 years old by now. But there they were. Some shy of even 16. Those tilting their head to accentuate their pipe. The ones who lifted an arm around another shoulder to embrace. The two tipping their caps. Whichever one decided on adding the goat.
The film takes us through enlistment and into the trenches, to the days ‘off’ and the days spent burying their brothers. There are magnificently poignant words spoken by Veterans that warned of the never ending cost of war. Cautionary tales of the hypocrisy and cruelty those who fight for their country feel the moment they’ve returned to the ‘civilized’ world. The detachment and isolation felt by the millions of those who have seen things that those who haven’t seen battle will never understand.
‘There is something to be said for those of us who had sat in the trenches, waiting. Day in and day out. Waiting. For death. To live. For something. That feeling is not something anyone else will understand unless they’ve lived it. Most people try to be polite, try to sympathize. But most, most will never know.”
They describe returning home 4 years later and seeing signs in the windows of stores that servicemen need not apply. “Its a real shame how we treat servicemen in this country” we hear an Englishman say as the reel begins to shift back into black and white. These men (today men AND women) who have given all they’ve had to their country only to return to a place where they no longer feel like they belong.
In They Shall Not Grow Old, words are never attributed to a single solider. This film belongs to all of them. Their memories woven together to what is and what was. At times, war feels doomed to be a fever dream. There are parts we simply will never be able to comprehend. Still, there is a reason a photo is said to outweigh words 1000:1. Watching. Their movements tell a part of the story we’ve never seen before. The ones whose gaze lingers into the camera. A shaking hand. The profound affect even a half smile can provoke when the camera pans down a row of 100. You can read an entire book of their stories yet the part that is uncovered in their images is what makes them alive even today. They have not grown old. Those who died there and those who carried their souls with them. We’re somehow one hundred years ahead and equal parts back there again.
Will the film made 100 years from now be any different?
Same as them, none of us reading this will ever know.
May they not have to answer the same question.