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Monday, March 11, 2019

And You Are There


When I was a kid back in the 1970s, there was a television show that aired on Saturdays called You Are There. Hosted by newsman Walter Cronkite, the educational show reenacted historical events with Hollywood stars cast as the major players. For instance, actor Paul Newman once portrayed Marcus Brutus in the episode “The Assassination of Julius Caesar.” Cronkite would report on the event as if it were happening live.

I’m a sucker for good historical stories for a few reasons. The first, I love to put myself into the event. I like to wonder what I would have done if I lived at that time. Would I have boarded the Titanic? Would I be fed to the lions if I were a Christian in ancient Rome? Would I have joined the Revolution or remained loyal to crown back in 1776?

In addition to learning new things, I also like to think about my ancestors. Since I am alive, it is obvious that there is a long chain of ancestors preceding me and anchoring me to the beginning of humankind. I often wonder if and how my ancestors survived through things like Irish famine? What did my ancestors endure during the Viking raids?

A few weeks ago, my family and I attending a showing of the film They Shall Not Grow Old. This film takes you into World War I in ways only You Are There could dream about. The documentary was release in December 2018 in limited theaters and unfortunately, we couldn’t go then, but they brought the film back again in February. Directed and produced by New Zealander Peter Jackson, who is best known for writing, directing and producing The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, the film was created with original archive footage of World War I from the British Imperial War Museum and married with audio narration from the BBC interviews with veterans of that war. Using revolutionary technology, the film was colorized and transformed to make it appear as modern film instead of the speedy, jerky movies of that time.

What was most striking to me was how, more than any other film I’ve ever seen, this documentary gave you the “You Are There” experience. Jackson explained in a short piece after the film’s conclusion how most of the soldiers in the film had never seen a movie camera before and just gazed at the camera. Therefore, there are a lot of frames where the young soldiers appear as if to be making direct eye contact with the viewer, bridging 100 years of time to tell their story. And what a story it was and is! You go from the declaration of war until the soldiers are mustered out. But in between you learn about trench warfare, how people coped with constant bombardment, what the British thought of their German combatants, and how these survivors came to be known as “The Lost Generation.”

If you get the chance to see it, do so. You will come away with an understanding of war that reading tomes of history books could not give you.

This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Northern Connection magazine.