“They Shall Not Grow Old”: See it if you can!

For the Fallen
By Laurence Binyon

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

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.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

With this lament published in The London Times in September 1914, Laurence Binyon commemorated the lives of the English soldiers lost in battle–in a war that Europeans still thought would be over by Christmas. But not until November 11, 1918–more than four years and more than 18 million deaths later–did that horrific war come to an end.

When the Imperial War Museums and the BBC asked Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings fame) to commemorate that Armistice on film, he chose a line from Binyon’s elegy as his title: They Shall Not Grow Old. The film was screened in theaters across on the United States on December 17 and 27, 2019, to packed houses everywhere; it is being released for an encore performance on Monday, January 21.

I had the distinct privilege of seeing the film on December 27. It became the crowning moment of the years I have devoted to the commemoration of World War I, whose results I have chronicled in these pages. With the novels and the poems, the plays and the movies, the first-hand accounts and the scholarly studies under my belt, I felt that I had experienced the war truly if vicariously; however, this film made the experience real in ways I cannot describe. Jackson has used only original footage shot during that crucible of war and only the voices of British veterans recorded by the BBC during the mid-20th century as narration. The effect is immediate and unparalleled as the jerky and often damaged black-and-white images become the muted gray-greens and khaki-browns of the Western front and the tommies themselves begin to speak.

I will write more after I see the film again on Monday, this time in 3D. I have encouraged my students to see the film and will buy the digital version when it is available. I am posting this now simply to ask you–to beg you–to see it along with me. You can locate a theater and even buy tickets at Fathom Events, and you can read some reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, where the film has a score of 97%. The Internet is rife with analyses as well, and I recommend a Google search for some of the best.

Mostly, I recommend that you spend Monday afternoon or evening at a theater near you to experience They Shall Not Grow Old; if you do, I promise that afterwards, you will be able to recite with full and lasting empathy:

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.

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One Response to “They Shall Not Grow Old”: See it if you can!

  1. Boz says:

    P. S. Stay for Peter Jackson’s brief discussion of his commission to do the film and the painstaking efforts he made to provide us with such an authentic experience.

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