Old Soldiers

My favorite local movie theater is Landmark Crest, south of us in a neighborhood called Ridgecrest which is part of a town called Shoreline, all of which is in fact part of Seattle, having been absorbed some years ago. It’s an old-style movie theater of the sort that’s mostly disappeared, in a quiet neighborhood a couple of blocks from the low-rent bustle of Aurora Avenue. Just a bit up the street from the Crest is the Ridgecrest Public House  which I’d only been to once, but instantly fell in love with. It has a huge selection of craft beers, comfortable seating, and a real sense of the community–there’s even a Sunday night knitters group.

As always, when I discover something I love, I want to show it to Bill, so we went to a movie at the Crest recently, Peter Jackson’s extraordinary documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. Jackson, you may remember, is the New Zealander who directed the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit films. The BBC offered him the chance to work with 100-year-old archival World War I footage for the centennial of the Great War. He decided to transform that film to modern standards, adjusting and smoothing out the speed (cameras were hand-cranked back then), colorizing it beautifully, and using historical information and lip-readers to add sound and dialogue. All of this brought old, crackly, distant-seeming footage brightly to life for modern viewers.

When I first learned about this move, I knew I wanted to see it. But would Bill? It was a complicated question. Twenty-three years ago, as I stood waiting in his living room to leave on our second date, someone on a TV show made a comment about how 20-year-olds always think they have life all figured out. Bill’s son Steve, who was 20 at the time was sitting there so I asked him if he thought he had life all figured out (he didn’t). It made me think back on my own 20-year-old self, nearing graduation from college, unsure I’d find a job that I liked in the dubious economy of the early 1980s. “Where was I when I was 20?” Bill mused to himself. And then he remembered: He was in the Navy.

He had spent years blocking that part of his life out of his mind. He’d enlisted in the Naval Reserve in 1970 as a better alternative to being sent as infantry into the jungle, a certainty, given his low lottery number. It’s a time he rarely talks about.

In the last several years, Bill’s gotten older and the U.S. has gotten  wrapped up in lengthy Middle Eastern conflicts and he’s become a lot more vocal about hating war. Veterans from Vietnam are aging out. At 67, Bill’s near the young end of the age range for a Vietnam-era vet, and that war is receding from the collective memory. “It’s like I’d been in the Hundred Years’ War,” he said once back when we first got together in the mid-90s and of course 23 years later that’s only more true.

As our nation is gradually forgetting Vietnam, Bill has gradually become more vocal about it, especially about hating war scenes in movies, and war movies in general, which he now usually avoids. But, yes, he very much wanted to see They Shall Not Grow Old.

And so we went. To a 3D showing which made me happy because I’m a lover of the use of 3D in documentaries. It was a wonderful, wonderful film. Jackson made a number of wise choices, the best of which was to have zero modern narration. Instead, he found archival audio of WWI vets interviewed by the BBC in the 1960s, describing their experiences. He let those recordings of old soldiers, now long dead, tell the audience what they were seeing on the screen.

He also worked hard to faithfully recreate the sounds of a World War I battlefield. And that’s the part that got to Bill. Not the explosions, which certainly made me flinch a few times, or the whistling sounds of shells, but the softer sound of bullets whizzing by, almost a whispered swish as he describes it. “You probably didn’t even notice it,” he told me afterward, and indeed, I didn’t. But the sound took him right back there. It’s a sound, he said, that you only hear as a bullet flies by you. If it hits you, you don’t hear it at all.

I didn’t learn this until later, when we were in the pub, decompressing from the movie over pints of beer and cider. All I knew then was that he was sitting next to me in the front row, with his arms wrapped tight around his body, sobbing, and shaking. All I could think to do was pry my hand between his arm and his torso, holding on to whatever part of him I could.

World War I was a brutally deadly war, and as Jackson notes in a video about the making of the movie, the young soldiers we see smiling and waving at the camera right before battle are often in the last half hour of their lives. But those who lived for many years after and told their stories to the BBC said what I also knew, sitting next to my stricken husband: war damages people forever. Wounded or not, it leaves scars on those who fight it, and no matter how many years go by, the scars never go away.

Image: A WWI cemetery in Germany. Credit: OliBac, via Flickr

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