“They Shall Not Grow Old”
It was a long shot. But I kept searching the faces, looking for his. My great-uncle’s. Pvt. John R. Dougherty who fought with Company G, 113th U.S. Infantry in World War I.
The Great War. The War to End All Wars.
I wondered if his young face was there, in the sea of mostly teenaged infantrymen, in the new documentary, “They Shall Not Grow Old.” I didn’t spot him. Then again, the film focuses mainly on members of the British Army. He was an American.
I’d tell you to go see the haunting film, but it’s being released in a series of one-night stands in select theaters around the country. Monday was its Virginia Beach premier in the Lynnhaven AMC theaters. No telling when it will be back.
When it comes, don’t miss it.
New Zealand director Peter Jackson, best known for the “Lord of the Rings” series, took 100-year-old battlefield footage and, using sophisticated computer technology, restored and updated it to bring these men - who either died in battle or from old age - back to life.
The result is stunning. Disturbing, too.
If you’ve ever wondered what trench warfare was like, this film provides harrowing images of the young men who slogged through the mud and lived in these rat-infested channels on the Western Front for months and months, under constant artillery fire from nearby German installations.
Jackson focuses on the ordinary soldiers. What they ate, how they cooked, even how they relieved themselves. You see the lice, the flies, the gangrene, the frostbite, the mustard gas.
When the Brits finally besiege the Germans, the images turn from unsettling to grisly. Through the voices of World War I vets, long dead now, the film captures their fear and their camaraderie.
I don’t know enough about that war. This documentary makes me want to learn more. In a director’s note at the end, Jackson explains that this is a film created by a non-historian for non-historians.
Pointing out that soldiers from all over the world fought along the Western Front, Jackson urges viewers to ask family members about relatives who might have been in the fields of France and Belgium. He suggests many of us have a connection.
Mine is through my grandfather’s younger brother. John enlisted in the Army in his junior year in high school. Once home, the rural mailman suffered a series of nervous breakdowns due to what my family always called “shell shock.” What we now call PTSD.
Ten years after the war ended the newspapers unblinkingly reported that John R. Dougherty, Jr. “discharged his shotgun which blew off the top of his head” after his wife left their house for just a few minutes.
They called him a victim of the “bloody conflict” as sure as if he had died on a battlefield.
Like so many who fought in that ghastly war, Pvt. Dougherty, 28, did not grow old.