‘They shall not grow old’

Courtesy of Wikipedia.org

One of my sons discovered last month that we had an opportunity to view Peter Jackson’s film They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary constructed from World War I motion picture footage owned by the Imperial War Museum in London. The movie was shown on only two dates in December, but apparently will be released more generally beginning in January, so all is not lost if you missed seeing it.

The film’s premise is to restore the humanity of men who, up until this time, have been caught in a silent world of flickering black-and-white images. Modern digital techniques allowed Jackson’s crew to rebalance the density/lighting and speed of the film, and – in some footage – to add realistic color. Sound has been added through oral history interviews done decades after the war, as well as reconstruction of the actual words uttered on-screen through the use of lip reading and geographically-correct dialects based on the regiments depicted.

The effect is much like the transition in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy’s black-and-white Kansas world gives way to glorious full color in the magical Land of Oz. And even without the addition of color, the audience at our screening gasped audibly when badly under-exposed film of women working in a munitions factory was rebalanced so that every detail was visible.

While this movie is obviously of interest to those who enjoy history generally – and military history especially – it has a particular genealogical bent as well. Peter Jackson dedicated it to his own grandfather, Sgt. William Jackson, DCM, and to his great-uncle and the relative of another film crewmember who died in the war. In fact, in the post-film presentation by Peter Jackson, he describes how the war affected his grandfather long-term, and how Peter would never have been born if not for his grandfather’s war experiences … but no spoilers from me!

Lieut. Garrett Cochran. Courtesy of Findagrave.com

The United States suffered few casualties during the First World War compared to the nations of Europe, but that is not to imply that there were no casualties in America. I found a sad little postscript to the story I shared last November about my great-grandfather’s participation in the Cal/Stanford “Big Game” 120 years ago. A blog devoted to the University of California Golden Bears paid tribute to Cal athletes who died in the war, and it turns out that Garrett Cochran – a Princeton super athlete, and Cal’s winning football and baseball coach during my great-grandfather’s years – was among them.

The base of the Tilden statue. Courtesy of Californiagoldenblogs.com

He was serving in the National Guard when he was deployed to France as a lieutenant of Artillery. There he contracted pneumonia and was sent home to recover, but he died on the hospital ship at the age of 41, leaving behind a wife and three young children. The university added his name to the base of Douglas Tilden’s “Football Players” statue, and unveiled it at a ceremony in 1920, which was reportedly attended by all of the surviving athletes he’d coached (presumably including my great-grandfather). Sadly, the final “T” on his first name was omitted, which brings to mind the famous quote of William Tecumseh Sherman: “I think I know what military fame is; to be killed on the field of battle and have your name misspelled in the newspapers.”

Pamela Athearn Filbert

About Pamela Athearn Filbert

Pamela Athearn Filbert was born in Berkeley, California, but considers herself a “native Oregonian born in exile,” since her maternal great-great-grandparents arrived via the Oregon Trail, and she herself moved to Oregon well before her second birthday. She met her husband (an actual native Oregonian whose parents lived two blocks from hers in Berkeley) in London, England. She holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon, and has worked as a newsletter and book editor in New York City and Salem, Oregon; she was most recently the college and career program coordinator at her local high school.

4 thoughts on “‘They shall not grow old’

    1. From what I’ve read, he came down with a bad cold while standing watch on the ship, and doctors tried to keep him back from the front once he arrived in France. However, he didn’t want to be separated from his troops, so insisted on going ahead until he became truly disabled. The accounts I’m familiar with about the “Spanish” Influenza of that time indicate that it was quite virulent and killed quickly, so in this case I’m inclined to believe that he truly did die of pneumonia. Definitely a plausible alternative, though, due to the timing.

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