Matthew’s Monday Movie: “They Shall Not Grow Old”

Peter Jackson is well known for his great work in bringing to life J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but this past year he introduced audiences to one of the most impressive documentary films of the ages. As November 11th 2018 marked the centennial anniversary of the end of World War I, Peter Jackson released his ambitious documentary film They Shall Not Grow Old. The film’s title is from a line in the famous 1914 poem “For The Fallen” by Laurence Binyon:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.

This film’s structure is on the outset strikingly different for a war documentary: the names of those interviewed are never given since there were over 200 veterans interviewed, culminating into over 600 hours of audio. The technical work in this film is truly mind-boggling. With hundreds of hours of black and white footage that was sped up for film, the crew colorized and digitized the film to produce a flawless product. What were once shaky and grainy images now explode with color to show how it really looked in the hellish landscapes of WW1 era France. The film does an amazing job at recreating the audio sounds of deafening artillery and even goes so far as to hire lip readers and voice actors, thereby giving voice to the men of once silent footage.

The narrative of the film begins as the war kicks off and young recruits seek to enlist (many being as young as fifteen even though the required age was nineteen). The veterans explain that their initial thoughts of war included grand adventures filled with patriotic notions of duty and service to the empire. They are quickly trained and set off for France. Their opinions about what war will be like quickly change when faced with the realities and destructive nature of modern war technology.

The vast spider web network of trenches that dominated Western Europe at the time are shown in all their visceral conditions. Living, eating, and sleeping in flooded trenches with such abundant squalor and the filth of latrines, the soldiers must deal with rats and dead men only meters away. The film’s footage truly shows what a nightmare WW1 was. There was a relentless shelling by artillery, sniper fire, and even poison gas in the trenches. In spite of these appalling conditions, the men soldiered on while many yearned for some sense of normalcy in their down time with a cup of tea or a cigarette. When they were relieved off the front for R&R many indulged in alcohol, gambling and even brothels. It was also in these downtimes that you see the true camaraderie the men have with each other.

As the film reaches its climax, the soldiers retell the horrors of  going over the top into no man’s land to attack on the German lines. Many are killed, more are wounded, and the survivors lead a bloody attack to take the German trenches and killing or capturing them. They then reflect that the enemy soldiers are not much different than themselves; some of them even become quite friendly. The soldiers, regardless of background or which side the fight, all agree that the war is useless and it should never have happened.

In closing I can’t stress how moving and awe-inspiring They Shall Not Grow Old is. It truly feels as if one is going back in time. I challenge anyone who watches it to not feel the utter heartbreak and sadness when one witnesses what these poor young men went through. I find it nearly impossible to maintain a dry eye while viewing this film. This heartbreaking documentary shows the very best and worst that humans are capable of doing to one another.

They Shall Not Grow Old is available at Union University’s Library.

*Please note: this film shows actual war footage and can be extremely unsettling. It is not recommended for young audiences.

 

 

Brennan’s Brainstorms: Cirque du Soleil

circus

Over winter break, I had the privilege of taking a long eleven-day vacation with my immediate family. We journeyed west (further west than I had ever been) to Los Angeles. We spent several days there, before spending one day in San Diego (to see the zoo) and the last few days of the trip in Las Vegas. I was blessed to be able to see much that those three cities had to offer.

 

One of the highlights of the trip was certainly attending Cirque du Soleil at the MGM in Las Vegas. Specifically, I went to see their show Ká. I can say without a doubt that Ká is the greatest show I have ever seen.

 

Ká is one of the first performances by Cirque du Soleil that features one continuous storyline. The story centers around two siblings, a prince and a princess, who are split from each other when a rival kingdom invades their own. The performance depicts their journey to reunite, while also showing their conflict and close escapes with the rival kingdom. Landscapes vary from dangerous jungles, treacherous mountains, tumultuous seas, and even the dark lair of the rival kingdom. These transitions are done through amazing sets, stages (more on that later) and incredible non-verbal communication through costumes, dances, and stunts.

 

Ká opened in February of 2005 and has been seen by more than a million people over the course of its tenure. Though Ká is the first performance by Cirque du Soleil to have a concrete, cohesive storyline, it is not only the story that makes the performance so breathtaking. Having sat only four rows from the front of the stage, I can say it is the most technologically advanced theatrical show of all time. And that’s not just me; The Los Angeles Times said the same thing when they wrote about its debut.

 

There are actually two stages (and five smaller platforms) that are used throughout the course of the show. Having been there I can explain it like this; there is a small ring that goes around like a stage, and with what looks like a bottomless abyss behind it. Once the show begins a platform is raised up from that pit. This machine is by far the most innovative stage of all time. It can rotate 360 degrees around and can become almost completely vertical (around 100 degrees). It moves throughout the show as the athletes perform death-defying stunts. I could hardly believe my eyes as I watched the artists run up and down an ever-moving stage.

 

However, the most breathtaking feats came when the acrobats used one of the most dangerous circus constructions of all time, the wheel of death. The wheel of death is a large metal structure balanced like a beam with two open spherical cages on each end. The performers start inside these cages, though they later move outside them and on top of them. The catch is that the structure is constantly spinning and the performers must balance on it as they are turned around like a clock head. Describing such a structure is difficult, but there are plenty of YouTube videos depicting this kind of performance, including the scene straight from Ká itself. The artists ran up and down the wheel, including one performer who used a jump rope as the wheel spun underneath him. The audience could hardly react with each motion becoming more and more dangerous and equally more exciting.

 

Overall the performance took my breath away. The stunts, performed with such precision, made the audience gasp in awe with every twist and turn. Yet underneath the insane tricks rests a heartwarming tale of the reunion of two siblings and the salvation of an entire kingdom. So, if you are ever in Las Vegas and want to see a quality Cirque Du Soleil performance, Ká is certainly the one to see. There is never a dull moment and there is nothing like it in the world.

(The Union library currently has a documentary entitled, “Another Kind of Circus,” on the history of Cirque Du Soleil if you would like to learn more about their origins. You can find access to this documentary from the library page on Union’s website.)

 

*written by Brennan Kress