Downton Abbey

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Over the weekend my wife and I got to see Downton Abbey, the film continuation of the great British TV series.

I'll start off by saying that it was a perfect date movie—definitely so if you've watched the entirety of the show and especially so if you love it. My wife and I had a great time. But I'm honestly not sure how much someone with no familiarity with the show would get out of it. One of the things I liked about the movie was that it wasted almost no time bothering to introduce characters fans will already know. That means fans get a lot of bang for their buck but I imagine newbies may well be lost.

The film takes place over a few days at Downton Abbey, the estate of Lord Grantham and his family. A letter from Buckingham Palace that informs the family of an impending visit from the king and queen sets the house in motion and the plot follows the family, the household staff, and the guests through the labyrinthine progress of a royal visit.

The Grantham family faces the myriad pressures of properly accommodating the royal family—including everything from clean and comfortable rooms to a well-executed military parade—and the household staff find themselves sidelined by specialists brought in from London to prepare the house according to arcane royal protocols, which they find insulting. Taking especial offense are Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), the cook and housekeeper, who bristle at the condescending intrusions of the outsiders.

You’d be forgiven for thinking so based on this poster, but  Downton Abbey  is not a horror movie

You’d be forgiven for thinking so based on this poster, but Downton Abbey is not a horror movie

In Downton Abbey fashion, some characters misstep in trying to make things easier and further complicate matters. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) asks her old favorite Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) to come out of retirement (a last minute development in the finale of the series) to act as butler just for the royal visit, an insult to Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), who is clearly proud of his new position as butler and, apparently, handling himself well. Furthermore, interpersonal drama looms as the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) learns that an estranged cousin (Imelda Staunton) whom she believes is scheming to cheat the Grantham family out of an estate rightfully theirs will be returning as one of the queen’s ladies in waiting.

And there’s much, much more, including subplots about a handsome young plumber who flirts a smidge too much with Daisy (Sophie McShera), provoking jealousy in her intended, Andy (Michael Fox); the prying and questioning of a mysterious army officer (Stephen Campbell Moore); and the embarassing eagerness of Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) to return to staff just long enough to wait on the king and queen; and of course the inevitable secrets that every character refuses to divulge until things have gotten very complicated indeed.

It’s a lot of fun, and while a few of the subplots show off a little too clearly the soap opera that’s always been a part of Downton Abbey’s DNA—for instance, one involving the identity of a mysterious lady’s maid who also immediately turns into a love interest—some of the subplots are very funny. Perennial sad sack Mr. Molesely gets some especially British cringe humor at one crucial moment of the film.

The entire cast is excellent, especially considering that with well over thirty speaking roles in multiple intersecting plotlines and only two hours to work with, each performer had to make an impression with a very small amount of screentime. In fact I find it hard to say who the star of the film is, but the meatiest parts belong to Tom Branson (Allen Leech), erstwhile Irish socialist chauffeur, for whom the film seems to be trying to find a love interest, and to the great Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess, who invests her small slice of the plot with a sense of long history and hurt and, in the end, enormous pathos.

The film left a number of its many subplots underdeveloped or too little explored. An Irish Republican plot against the king doesn't get quite enough time to breath, and neither do a few following incidents involving Tom Branson, though they do have a nice payoff at the end. Similarly, an very important subplot involving the Dowager Countess only plays out secondhand, like events happening offstage in a Greek drama. By contrast, the most noteworthy and time consuming subplot involves Thomas Barrow taking a first trip into the gay underbelly of York, a subplot that reminds us how Barrow's issues have usually served as the vehicle for the show's most anachronistic and pandering messages. A little less time on this and a little more to set up—to choose one thing—the Dowager Countess's big revelation at the end of the film would have been a better use of screentime and felt a little less cloying.

But those are minor complaints. What needs to work works. The rivalry between Downton Abbey's staff and the royal staff is fun and has some delightful moments and all of the plot threads are nicely woven together and intertwined. Almost everyone has a moment or two. A favorite of mine: After Barrow has angrily stormed out of an interview with Lord Grantham, Lady Mary, and Mr. Carson in which he learns he’s being temporarily replaced, Lord Grantham chooses to ignore his insubordination with: “I never thought of him as a man of principle before.” And of course the Dowager Countess gets a heaping share of zingers, including “I never argue. I explain.” My wife noted that the film couldn't have been more carefully calculated to satisfy lovers of the show. I think she's right.

I thought a few times that the film could have used a little more substance. I had just recently watched Gosford Park, screenwriter Julian Fellowes’s first foray into this kind of storytelling (Downton Abbey was apparently originally intended as a spinoff) and marveled at the dramatic potential in a story with that many plots and side stories and such a huge cast. Compared with Gosford Park, Downton Abbey didn’t seem especially weighty.

But I realized that one of the things I most liked about Downton Abbey the film was its relatively low stakes. Royalty and status aside, the plot boils down to We’re having guests over for dinner. And after almost twenty years of the whole world threatened by rings of power or Decepticons or Sith lords or—especially—Infinity Stones, this was a refreshingly human-sized story. This has been the strength of Downton Abbey all along—its human proportions have allowed for delicate interplays of deference, respect, courtesy, and decency that remind us of what it means to live among others and connected to others. In a movie like this, not hurting the grocer’s feelings offers more personal meaning than any number of sci-fi MacGuffins and CGI battle scenes. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed that change of pace.

So definitely check out Downton Abbey, especially if you are at least passingly familiar with the show or simply want to a pay a visit in which your relationships with other people matter.

Tolkien

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Nicholas Hoult as JRR Tolkien in  Tolkien  (2019)

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Nicholas Hoult as JRR Tolkien in Tolkien (2019)

Last weekend I finally got the chance to see Tolkien, a film I’d been looking forward to with guarded optimism. The film tells the story of young JRR Tolkien, focusing primarily on his youth, education, and experiences during the First World War.

When the film begins, young Ronald (the first R in his famous initials) and his younger brother Hilary are living in an idyllic English countryside with their mother, a widow. Ronald and Hilary return from a woodland romp in which they pretend to be knights to find their mother in earnest conversation with Fr. Francis Morgan. Their life, already difficult owing to a move from Africa, where Ronald was born, to England and the death of the boys’ father, is about to become more difficult yet. They move from the countryside to industrial Birmingham, where the boys’ mother shortly dies. Fr. Francis, now their guardian, sends them to school, where the homeschooled boys are awkward but brilliant.

In this stretch of the story the film finds its two themes in two forms of love—friendship and courtship. First, Ronald is at first mildly antagonized by and then invited to join a group of precocious fellow schoolboys. Four in number, they leave the grounds to have tea in the back tearoom of a local store, where they disrupt the stuff middle-aged usual crowd with their enthusiastic discussions of mythology and art. Ronald gives their fellowship a joyfully clumsy nickname, the Tea Club, Barrovian Society or TCBS. Second, Ronald meets Edith Bratt, a fellow orphan and boarder at the home where he and Hilary share a room. He is immediately smitten. The film follows these two relationships—Ronald and the TCBS, Ronald and Edith—for the rest of its running time, through tragedy in the first case and into joy in the other.

A view of Middle Earth

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The film’s strongest asset is its visual splendor. Well-used landscape shots of the English countryside or the Oxford skyline or the Western Front evoke the love and loathing Tolkien felt for these places and suggest their atmospheric influence on his work, especially the most extreme of Middle Earth’s locations—the Shire in the countryside of his boyhood, Mordor in the smokestacks of Birmingham and the cratered moonscape of the Somme. This is a good-looking movie, and fantasy elements incorporated into the nightmarish, hallucinatory battle scenes—ringwraiths and dragons and even Sauron himself—work better than they should on the strength of their eeriness.

The war scenes themselves are outstanding, depicting the twenty-four-hour hell of the Somme authentically, with muck and grime and standing water in a no-man’s-land full of tree stumps and shell holes. Tolkien captures a thimbleful of the horror of the Western Front and shows Ronald’s dark, helpless place in it.

The film also has some truly inspired moments. My favorite depicted the news of England’s declaration of war on Germany in 1914. As Ronald’s fellow Oxford students flood the quad and cheer the arrival of a great adventure, Ronald sits quietly on a bench reading one of the great passages of Old English literature to his mentor, Professor Wright. It’s the speech of Byrhtwold in The Battle of Maldon:

Thought must be the harder, heart be the keener,
mind must be the greater, while our strength lessens.

The acting is fine but not outstanding, for reasons I’ll talk about shortly. Nicholas Hoult is fine as Ronald. As I worried, he’s too pretty, too billboard handsome to convince me he’s Tolkien. He did well enough with the material given him but I never believed he was the character. The same goes for Lily Collins as Edith, who performs better than Hoult in an even more underwritten part. The standout in the cast is Sir Derek Jacobi as Wright, in a very small part that only pops into the latter third or so of the film. Jacobi imbues Wright with such intelligence, affability, and goodness that it immediately underscores how far short the other cast members fall.

Where it went wrong

I think the writing, from a screenplay by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, is to blame. Most of the parts are underwritten or simply clumsily written. The actors do their best but the script simply isn’t well-formed or deep enough to tell the story well, and is too cliche-bound to tell the more complicated—and more interesting—truth.

A meeting of the T.C.B.S. in  Tolkien  (2019)

A meeting of the T.C.B.S. in Tolkien (2019)

The TCBS is a case in point. The young actors portraying the four depicted members can never take their characters beyond schoolboy stereotypes—the quiet one, the boisterous one, the nerdy one, the sensitive one—because the script never digs deeply enough for us to become invested in their friendships. We know the boys like each other simply because they spend most of their time declaiming poetry to each other. The one exception is Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle), a younger member whom the filmmakers depict mooning forlornly over Ronald, breathily commiserating about forbidden love after Roland is forced to cease communication with Edith. It’s a bizarre inclusion that adds nothing to the poignancy of Smith’s later death on the battlefield. It’s an example of the way modern film can’t seem to handle male friendship without sexualizing it. That it is so badly performed only draws attention to it.

But the weakest part of the film by far is the love story, which is a shame because, as I wrote in the spring, what I find most compelling and romantic about Ronald and Edith’s story is how much it breaks the mold of forbidden romance cliches. The real Ronald and Edith were forbidden to communicate by Fr. Francis—because Ronald’s grades had started slipping and because Edith was not a Catholic, about which more below—and Ronald and Edith obeyed. Edith got engaged to someone else. Ronald pined away until the evening of his twenty-first birthday, when he sat and wrote a letter to her proposing marriage.

The film hews to the facts in the broadest possible outline but everywhere you can feel the screenwriter massaging the details to fit the standard Hollywood mold. Ronald and Edith’s romance is communicated primarily through cuteness and smiles and twee sequences of whimsy, as when they cannot get seats for Wagner’s Ring and dance around in the prop department instead. Tolkien fell in love with a sharp, talented, and seriously religious and principled woman, but all the movie can give us are luminous smiles. Ronald responds to his forced breakup with Edith by getting drunk and staggering around the quad and lashing out at an old friend, then he steals a bus—something that actually happened, but not the way it’s depicted here. When at last he is old enough to pursue Edith, the couple is depicted as reuniting just before Ronald and the other members of the TCBS ship out to the Western Front. In reality, Ronald and Edith were already married by then. And Fr. Francis, an enormous influence in Tolkien’s early life and a man about whom Tolkien had nothing negative to say, is reduced by the screenplay to the role of an obstacle. In his extremely limited screentime he comes across as an out of touch fuddy-duddy, and Ronald lights into him for daring to dictate rules about his love life when he is celibate, a 21st-century zinger if ever there was one.

Finally, the film only makes token gestures toward the religious dimension of Tolkien’s life. One would be forgiven for not knowing that Fr. Francis was a Catholic priest, a serious omission given the level of anti-Catholicism in England at the time. That Tolkien’s mother lived in such miserable conditions because her own family had cut her off after converting to Catholicism is left out, as is the serious religiosity of the TCBS, which Tolkien regarded as the force that bound its (much more than four) members. And the difficulty of Edith’s conversion from her serious and devout Anglicanism to Catholicism also gets not a mention. I expected it, but it’s still disappointing.

In conclusion

I’ve had a lot to say about Tolkien’s flaws but I enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I just can’t recommend it, first for all of the reasons I’ve outlined above, and second because I simply don’t know what someone who didn’t already know a lot about Tolkien would get out of the movie. That moment between Ronald and Professor Wright reading The Battle of Maldon as England goes its most destructive war blew me away because I’ve read The Battle of Maldon dozens of times. Would the average viewer feel the power of that scene as I did without knowing that thousand-year old poem? I doubt it.

By the same token, someone who doesn’t know Tolkien’s life story will get only a standard Hollywood melodrama about friendships that end in the tragedy of war and a love that overcomes obstacles thrown in its way. The details and specifics of these remarkale real people have been sanded away in favor of cliches. The result is a nice-looking film with underwritten parts that proceeds as if on autopilot.

Middle Earth still awaits its Tolkien movie.

Griswoldville in the Laurel

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I’m grateful to Tracy and John at the Georgia Mountain Laurel, a great local magazine published in my hometown, for John’s generous review of Griswoldville in the September issue. (A Rabun County bicentennial issue, no less!) The review gives a few details about my writing of the book, including the role my grandfathers played in inspiring parts of the story, as well as a brief plot synopsis and a kind recommendation. Please check out the Laurel, and do check out Griswoldville as well if the Laurel’s review piques your interest!

Thanks again to the folks at the Laurel. They’ve previously reviewed No Snakes in Iceland and Dark Full of Enemies and have been an immense encouragement as each new project has come out.

You can browse the online edition of the Laurel here (the review is on page 40 of the magazine). For more information about Griswoldville, including praise from other readers, you can look at the book’s page on my site here or visit it on Amazon here.

More reader reviews of Griswoldville

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Griswoldville is almost a year old! To celebrate in the month leading up to the anniversary of its publication, here is a bit more of what folks are saying about the novel. More reader reviews of Griswoldville have been rolling in, both on Goodreads and Amazon, where it’s available in paperback and Kindle formats. You can read complete reviews here and here respectively. Here are a few samples, along with a personal note about the feedback that has meant the most to me.

Reader reviews from around the internet

First, I am deeply grateful for a good review from Sam Burnham, curator of All the Biscuits in Georgia, a website and blog dedicated to the best our mutual homestate has to offer. Reviewing Griswoldville, Sam calls it “a coming of age tale, a multi-generational drama, a war novel, and a work of historical fiction” that

This is a book you really should read.
— Sam Burnham, All the Biscuits in Georgia

drop[s] you into a country church, along a dirt road, around the fire at story time. You get the sights, the sounds, the smells. You find yourself in Georgia in the mid-19th century. It’s hard to come across a narrative that is so historically accurate while maintaining that personality, that soul. Griswoldville has both.

Sam also writes that Griswoldville “is a book you really should read.” You can read the whole ABG review here.

On Goodreads, Jacob writes that “Griswoldville is no typical Civil War story. The novel . . . reveals how even the often forgotten episodes of the War (like the battle of Griswoldville) forever changed the lives of soldiers like Georgie.”

Also on Goodreads, Joshua, a Macon native who knows the region in which the climactic action takes place, calls Griswoldville a “phenomenal read”:

Read cover to cover in 4 days! Well written and researched for a novel, and places the reader in a position not often covered . . . the home front of rural Georgia. The author . . . highlights the struggles of home life while most of the Southern men were away defending their loved ones. . . . Artfully describes the combat of the era, but from a human perspective rather than a historian or tactician’s view. As a native of Macon, Georgia, just southwest of Griswoldville, . . . it was obvious the author took the time to properly research the area and history, and it makes a Maconite proud.

Goodreads reviewer Sarah writes that:

This novel is a tribute to every strong mother, father, or, in the case of Georgie, grandfather. Fate, Georgie’s grandfather, is an unforgettable character.
— Goodreads reviewer Sarah

This novel works on several levels. First, as a coming-of-age novel, Griswoldville captures the passage from boy to man. The backdrop of the war and then Reconstruction works splendidly for Georgie’s transformation. Second, the [toll] of a war on the people involved seemed heartbreaking. Not having been in a war myself, I can only imagine the pain and sorrow that must follow those who take up arms. The novel helped me imagine that burden. Finally, the beautiful family ties that Georgie describes make me want to love on my own family. In some ways, this novel is a tribute to every strong mother, father, or, in the case of Georgie, grandfather. Fate, Georgie’s grandfather, is an unforgettable character.

And speaking of Lafayette “Fate” Eschenbach, Amazon reviewer Jacob Johnson writes that:

Fate reminds me a lot of my own grandfather, and as he is going through a tough time of his own I was able to use Fate’s storyline as a coping mechanism. I found a lot of similarities between Fate and my own grandfather, and that hit me more than I was expecting. . . . Seeing how a grandson looked up to his grandfather reminded me a lot of how I look up to my grandfather. The other areas of this book are great as well. The detail that goes into the battles, the connections with cousins and friends in the town, and even a little bit of Georgie’s years after the war as he ages makes this novel a great read for anyone looking to immediately be drawn in. I highly recommend this book.

He also writes that Griswoldville is “an excellent read not only for me as an Education/History major, but just for anyone who enjoys quality literature.” He recommends it “to anyone wanting to read a little bit about one of the lost battles of the Civil War,” and Joshua concludes his review by recommending the book “to ANYONE with a passion for this time period, and especially the local and state history of Georgia.”

A personal note

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I’m thankful to have written Griswoldville and especially thankful to share it with such readers. The feedback I’ve gotten in the last year has been deeply gratifying for a couple of reasons.

First, readers have seen in Griswoldville what I most hoped they would—a story about memory, love of home and family, coming of age and taking on responsibility, living with loss and experiencing redemption. Second, people in both online reviews and speaking to me personally have told me how much the relationships in the novel meant to them, especially that between Georgie and Fate, with a few describing their relationships with their own grandfathers in similar terms. One told me that Griswoldville has helped him cope with his grandfather’s physical decline and approaching death. Others have told me about stories about their own grandfathers and the ways they filled the roles played by Fate in my book.

Similarly, I’ve been told by one reader, a South Carolina native with deep roots in Georgia, that his wife, a native of upstate New York, read the book and told him that she suddenly understood him and what made him tick as a man raised in the South. If Griswoldville is also a plea for understanding our ancestors, this is one of the most profoundly moving bits of feedback I’ve received.

It’s this kind of feedback—the personal kind, where I’ve struck on something that resonated with people and turned their minds toward the men who helped raise and teach them and the place and culture that shaped them—that has meant the most to me. I’m grateful to y’all for sharing your responses with me.

Thanks as always for reading! If you haven’t read Griswoldville, please do, and leave an honest review so that the word can continue to spread. I look forward to more and will update y’all as feedback comes my way.

Spring reading 2019

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Although my spring semester was incredibly busy and stressful, I still made time to read. So while this blog was only updated intermittently while I worked on bigger projects, my reading never abated.

Here’s my spring reading list—“spring” here meaning something roughly analogous to my spring semester, from New Year’s to last weekend, May 11, just before our summer session began. The only organizing principle is that the books on this list are presented in the order I finished reading them.

Finally, anything I’ve reviewed, whether briefly on Goodreads or in more detail on my blog here, I’ve hyperlinked. Enjoy!

Spring Reading, January-May 2019

A few superlatives, just because

Best reread: It’d ordinarily be a very close race between Inferno, the first third of my favorite book, and All Quiet on the Western Front, which was for many, many years my favorite novel. Acknowledging the greatness of those two, though, I have to give this to A Study in Scarlet, which I read for the first time since 9th grade and enjoyed just as much. A small masterpiece of misdirection, tension, and suspense.

Biggest surprise: Tom Holland’s slender little volume for the new Ladybird Expert series, Æthelflæd: England’s Forgotten Founder. I was passingly familiar with Æthelflæd as Alfred the Great’s daughter, who married into the Mercian royal family and eventually ran the place, but had no idea what a fascinating and varied career she had as “the Lady of the Mercians.” Pick this up for a short, beautifully illustrated window into an important side-story of Anglo-Saxon England.

Biggest letdown: Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House. Some genuinely great moments of suspense and supernatural dread did not make up for the meandering plot and, especially, the tedious characters.

Best western: True Grit, which could also vie for best reread. But is it even fair to pit anything else against True Grit?

Best general non-fiction: I’m going to declare a tie between Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism and Peter Kreeft’s Symbol or Substance? I posted a full review of Kirk’s book yesterday but I’m still mulling Kreeft’s book, which is, like most of his work, brilliant and deeply challenging. Coming in at a close second to these two is Roger Scruton’s How to Be a Conservative, which is an excellent recent meditation on the subject.

Favorite classic: Again, I could give the nod to Inferno here, but this time around I’ll give it to How to Keep Your Cool, a new translation of the Roman stoic Seneca’s treatise De Ira (On Anger). A must read for anyone who appreciates Stoic philosophy, struggles with their temper, or both—like me.

Best Elmore Leonard: I’ve been on an Elmore Leonard kick since reading this piece from University Bookman last summer, and it’s been great. While I’ve decided I much prefer his westerns to his later crime novels—with a few exceptions—my favorite Leonard read this spring was an outlier even by that standard: The Moonshine War. A brisk, suspenseful story set in rural Kentucky during Prohibition, The Moonshine War is fun, has rousing action and interesting characters, and—almost as a bonus—presents these Appalachian archetypes without a lot of crass hillbilly stereotyping. It’s a blast. Check it out.

I read the whole thing: Ages ago, I used to give myself the I Read the Whole Thing Award for massive books I’d finished. Atlas Shrugged, City of God, War and Peace—I’ve read every word. This spring that book was Andersonville, Mackinlay Kantor’s monumental Civil War novel. I reviewed it at some length here.

Currently reading

A few books I'm currently reading as we head into the summer:

  • Normandy ‘44: D-Day and the Battle for France, by James Holland—A new history of Operation Overlord and the Normandy campaign, which lasted for almost two and a half months following the initial invasion. I received an uncorrected proof as part of a Goodreads giveaway; the book comes out in its final version next month.

  • The Holy Roman Empire: A Very Short Introduction, by Joachim Whaley—So far, another good volume from Oxford’s VSI series. This one is jam-packed with information, covering as it does over a thousand years of central European history.

  • The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, by Nicholas Meyer—I’m not much for novels written about classic characters by later fans, but this one, in which Sherlock Holmes beats his cocaine addiction with the assistance of Sigmund Freud, looked intriguing. It’s decent so far, but—barring some kind of monument plot development in the final third—good, not great.

Stuff I'm fixing to begin reading:

  • Lee, by Douglas Southall Freeman

  • The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, by Tom Nichols

  • The Vanishing American Adult, by Ben Sasse

  • Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (third or fourth attempt, as this is one of those books I’ve never been able to get into)

I also intend to crack open another volume in my project to read some massive books this year, both fiction and non-fiction. I’ve tackled Andersonville; I’m considering Lonesome Dove, Gone with the Wind, and Kristin Lavransdatter for the next read. We’ll see.

In the meantime, thanks for reading! And as always, if you’re looking for something good to read yourself, please check out one of my novels. You can find out about them right here.

Russell Kirk's Concise Guide to Conservatism

Conservatism today is not in good shape. Like Rome in Nero’s day, where the historian Tacitus wrote that “all degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish,” one can find just about any terrible thing you want to in the fringes of the movement. But mainstream conservatism, so-called, is not much better, riven as it is by debates between nationalists and globalists, traditionalists skeptical of modernity and technological triumphalists, advocates of small businesses and massive corporations, family values activists and anything goes social liberals, hawks and doves, and just as many big government porkbarrel technocrats as the other side of the aisle. If Yeats’s famous phrase was “the centre will not hold,” conservatism seems to have no center in the first place.

Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism, a formerly out-of-print handbook by one of the twentieth century’s great conservative thinkers, offers one to a movement desperately in need of re-centering. Kirk—a man of letters rather than a strictly political thinker or, worse, the curse of today’s political scene, a policy wonk—helped frame the meaning of conservatism at the time of its American revival in the 1950s, and this book is a refreshing throwback. It’s winsomely written, engaging and even funny, and a brilliant introduction to the true core of a movement that has lost its way.

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Originally published in 1957 as The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatism (the title being a riposte to George Bernard Shaw’s Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism), Kirk’s book sets out the principles of true conservatism simply and straightforwardly, drawing on the modern tradition from Burke to the 1950s. Anyone who has read the book that put Kirk on the map, The Conservative Mind, will recognize the names of many of the British and American conservatives Kirk invokes there, including John Adams, Orestes Brownson, John Randolph of Roanoke, Tocqueville, John C. Calhoun, Irving Babbitt, and Paul Elmer More, but Kirk also builds support from an even broader group of thinkers ranging as far back as Aristotle and Cicero and up to the 20th century British traditionalist liberal GK Chesterton.

This book also presents a condensed version of Kirk’s concerns in The Conservative Mind: the threat of materialist ideologies like Marxism; the leveling effects of industrialism and consumerism; the danger of totalizing, centralized state power; the collapse of community; the erosion of virtue, discourse, learning, respect for—or even knowledge of—the past; and much more. Kirk passionately explains the conservative views of freedom of conscience; private property; variety and diversity; traditional education in the liberal arts and humanities; the transcendent vision of the world offered by religion; church, community, and the other “little platoons” that make us who we are; and the family.

One of the strengths of Kirk’s book is his handling of the tensions within conservatism, of which we have plenty. I think one of the reasons “conservatism” so-called today has been pulled so badly out of shape is the attempt eliminate these tensions one way or the other, creating a balkanized political movement of simplified, un-nuanced sub-conservatisms. This is an essentially ideological search for a resolution to tension, one that insists on consistency and going to the logical extremes. Kirk avoids that temptation—insisting throughout that true conservatism is properly non-ideological—and retains these tensions.

Kirk deals with the tension between the individual and the community—both objects of immense respect and importance within conservatism—especially well, rejecting both “‘Individualism’ as a radical political ideology” (cf. Ayn Rand) as well as pure collectivism. But the best example, and possibly the best chapter in the book, is his treatment of permanence and change. Call it the tension between stability and Progress, or the status quo and the god Change. “The conservative is not opposed to progress as such,” Kirk writes, “though he doubts very much that there is any such force as a mystical Progress, with a [capital] P, at work in the world.” Invoking Coleridge, he continues:

The permanence in society is formed by those enduring values and interests which give us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the deep are broken up, and society slips into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate, and society subsides into an Egyptian or Peruvian lethargy.

Kirk wrote in 1957—the year my dad, now a 62-year old grandfather, was born—but his description of an affluent, technologically sophisticated but hollow society poised between anarchy and stagnation could have been written yesterday. A faithful advocate of what he, borrowing from TS Eliot, called “the permanent things,” he could not have produced a more permanently relevant little book.

Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism also includes a good introduction from historian Wilfred McClay. Coming in at just over 100 pages, this book is a much-needed refresher at a time of crisis. You won’t find much about economic theory or policy—those are all downstream of culture—but you will find a lot about principle, virtue, family and community, respect for the past, and the right ordering of affections that makes up the conservative worldview. I hope it gains a wide readership—both among those seeking to understand conservatives and conservatism, and conservatives in search of a center that will hold.

Stan & Ollie

Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) making  Way Out West  in 1937

Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) making Way Out West in 1937

When I was a kid, the rainy day entertainment on offer at my grandparents’ house—a disordered stack of clamshell packaged VHS tapes—included Winnie the Pooh, Humphrey the Bear, the Kiefer Sutherland and Charlie Sheen version of The Three Musketeers (strange days for Disney), and an old black and white film called Utopia. This film followed two friends, a dyspeptic fat man and his thin, mostly silent buddy, on a sea voyage gone wrong. They land by accident on an island raised from the sea overnight by an storm, establish their own government, and have to deal with the consequences as adventurers eager to make a buck mob the new island republic. There’s probably a lot going on in the movie that I didn’t get as a kid, but I did enjoy the banter and physical comedy of the two leads—Utopia, which came out in 1951, was my introduction to Laurel and Hardy.

Years later, long after that VHS disappeared, I learned that it was their last film.

Stan & Ollie picks up two years after Utopia and tells the story of Laurel and Hardy’s last live tour, a trip up and down the length of Britain to raise money—and the interest of producers—for their passion project, a Robin Hood comedy. Every incident, every circumstance reminds them that they are past their prime. They draw small crowds in less illustrious theaters and stay in inexpensive hotels. They carry their own luggage and trunks of props from station to station, checking in briefly with their oily promotional agent, whose obsequiousness doesn’t mask his greater interest in the other acts he represents. And they’re aging, taking medicines for their aches and pains and wishing they could have a drink or a cigarette though they’ve given up both.

But the greatest stress on the pair is the unhealed wound of professional betrayal. Years before, Laurel had tried to lead the team out of the studio system, to strike out on their own like other successful comedy acts, but Hardy had not followed. Worse, he went on to make a film—comically but also ominously referred to as “the elephant picture”—with someone else. Even reunited, these old friends step gingerly around this issue—as long as they can. The arrival of their wives, who nurse a cordial dislike of each other, and the revelation that Laurel has not been truthful about their potential Robin Hood deal with a film producer, strain their personal and professional relationship.

These pressures culminate in a tense, painful argument in which the pair air all their old grievances. Seeming to have finally split irreparably, Hardy’s collapsing health means a second reconciliation may never come. Worse, their publicity man begins approaching Laurel with offers to work with other comedians to complete the tour.

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Technically, Stan & Ollie is a handsomely mounted period piece with great sets and costumes and some very nice cinematography. The makeup and prosthetics, worn by both leads but most obvious on John C. Reilly, who wears a heavy fatsuit to play the aging Hardy, are the best I’ve seen since Gary Oldman’s transformation into Churchill in Darkest Hour. The verisimilitude is stunning. The writing is also solid, with a well-constructed screenplay that gives us a poignant window in the last stages of a great partnership rather than, Chaplin-style, trying to tell the whole story in two hours. The tone and pace are light and agile and, despite the subject matter, fun. A prologue set on the backlot of Hal Roach Studios during the filming of Way Out West in 1937 is a riot of old Hollywood iconography, as well as setting up all the conflict and backstory for the rest of the film—as well as a poignant bookend. It’s masterfully done.

But none of this would work without the performances, which are the real glory of Stan & Ollie. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly play the roles of Laurel and Hardy perfectly. These are not imitations or impressions, mere mechanical reproductions of the way the real men performed their sketches, but fully rounded, deft, and subtle performances. Coogan and Reilly’s ranges are perfectly matched, and both handle the broad comedy of the duo’s act and the fine, delicate dramatic scenes equally well, switching from one to the other naturally.

The reception scene in which Laurel and Hardy finally snap at each other is a case in point—anger, bitterness, sadness, regret, and sometimes more than one of these at the same time, all wash through each man’s features. Each is angry, and has a good reason to be; each is hurt, and has a good reason to be; each has the viewer’s sympathy, making their fight all the more painful. It’s excellent.

The entire supporting cast is great, too, especially the wives—Shirley Henderson as the fretful Mrs. Hardy and Nina Arianda as the chronically unimpressed has-been actress now known as Mrs. Laurel. But Coogan and Reilly own this film from beginning to end, not just resurrecting the style and fun of Laurel and Hardy (the comedy bits they reenact are hilarious—I laughed all the way through all of them) but making these icons real flesh and blood men with a real friendship.

By coincidence, just before watching Stan & Ollie I read Kyle Smith’s review of Tolkien, the brand new biopic (which I’ve written about before). Smith begins his review with the observation that, “There must be a hundred films about love for each one about friendship, and yet are the two not equally vital forces in our lives?” Stan & Ollie is a warm, poignant story about not just friendship, but the pains friends must take to remain friends through the difficulties and hurts that inevitably come between people. After their fight and a health scare that threatens to permanently break up the Laurel and Hardy team, the pair begin the process of reconciliation, repairing the trust and respect that friendship requires. Contrary to the accusations they fling at each other at their low point, friendships don’t just happen, and reconciliation isn’t a single magical moment—both come about through purposeful acts of love. So Laurel and Hardy end the film with their priorities reordered: their worldly successes and even their individual health come second to friendship.

Even if the movie weren’t as fun, endearing, and uplifting as it is, the final act makes it worth seeing.

Stories in the End

Just this morning I had a talk with my dad about stress, fatigue, fretfulness, and frustration and their unlikely but surest antidote—gratitude. It was a good reminder, and brought to mind Cicero’s line that gratitude “is not only the greatest of virtues, but the mother of all others.” That line should be this blog’s motto, by now.

I mention this because I think paying tribute, honoring a memory, is one of the best ways to express gratitude. It’s that kind of profound gratitude that pervades Stories in the End, a book just released by my friend Jay Eldred.

Stories in the End is a curious book. It’s narrated by Jay’s co-author, Tom Poole, a US Navy veteran and sportsman who died in 2017 at the age of 98. He tells his story in a series of letters to a young relative named “B.” Tom’s letters to B. take the reader through his life from his boyhood to old age.

Tom was a native of Goldsboro, North Carolina, but moved with his parents to New Bern when he was two and lived there—minus his years abroad in the Navy—for 96 years. There he met and married his wife Amber, a story told with great affection and warmth.

The bulk of Stories in the End covers Tom’s years in the Navy, particularly his extensive and harrowing service in World War II. He joined the Navy before the war and thus was at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He saw action at Casablanca and in the Pacific and was part of the Operation Neptune fleet that supported the D-day landings in Normandy in June 1944. The day after D-day his ship, the destroyer USS Meredith, struck a mine. She sank while being towed back to England for repairs. “That night was the worst night in my life,” he writes. “Worse even than Pearl Harbor, worse than the day Amber died in 2006. We floated in the water—in the dark and in the fuel.”

He survived all of these incidents and spent another twelve years in the Navy—including what must have been a nice time as head of naval recruiting in his hometown—retiring in 1957 and taking a job first at the New Bern water plant and then Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point as a civilian contractor and hunting, fishing, and turtling. His postwar letters are full of the details of this life—his successful effort to negotiate a pay raise for his employees, the art (and a little of the science) of fishing and trapping, and visits with friends and family.

I mentioned Jay and the curiosity of his project up front because I wanted to draw attention to his accomplishment with Stories in the End. Jay based the book on audio recordings of his conversations with Tom, which Tom permitted on two conditions: that he never know when or how he was being recorded and that Jay not begin writing the book until after he had died. Jay followed both of Tom’s strictures and, consulting boxes of documents and a few written reminiscences left behind by Tom, has produced a book that genuinely feels like conversations with Tom. By the end, I was sad to know he would be leaving, that this would be our last chat.

The narrative voice is perfect—warm, winsome, and by turns funny and profoundly moving. I’ve already quoted his terse summary of the night he spent in the Channel after the sinking of the USS Meredith. Here’s the moment at Pearl Harbor when he emerges from the USS Raleigh’s boiler room:

I’d wanted to make the Navy my career. Of course, Pearl Harbor kind of decided that for me. I think Pearl Harbor was like a bad dream. There was a lot of concussion and a lot of confusion, people running here and people running there, bodies in the water and ships on fire. The Utah was tied next to us and had rolled over. I knew there were men trapped inside.

And later, as the second wave of Japanese attackers come:

The Japanese flew so close I saw one shake his fist at us and could see he was wearing a red tassel. I shook my first back at him and wished I’d had a shotgun. Instead, we were sitting dead in the water. We kept firing though, and were credited with downing six planes. We were the lucky ones, too.

Tom’s memories brim with such details—there are many, many more remarkable moments not only from his war years but from the rest of his life, and I want to leave plenty for y’all to discover.

Tom’s story is simply and extraordinarily told, a credit both to Tom for his storytelling abilities and the incredible life he led, and to Jay for the difficult task of shaping audio recordings into such a solid and compelling narrative. The effort—a sign of the gratitude Jay has brought to this project—has paid off. Stories in the End is a loving, grateful tribute both to a generation—fewer than half a million World War II veterans are still living, the book reminds us—and to an individual man, an exemplar of hard, humble work, duty and loyalty, and faith.

Andersonville

The real Andersonville,  photographed  from the stockade wall in mid-August 1864.

The real Andersonville, photographed from the stockade wall in mid-August 1864.

This year I set myself a goal of reading fewer but longer books, and to get the year started I decided to tackle a monster: Mackinlay Kantor’s 750-page, Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War novel Andersonville. It took me exactly a month.

I first heard of Kantor’s Andersonville in the early 90s, when TNT aired its own Andersonville mini-series. Reviewers in the Civil War magazines I read condemned the mini-series for grossly exaggerating deliberate Confederate brutality, and compared it—unfavorably—to Kantor’s book, which they implied did the same thing. Both accusations, as it happens, are correct—for reasons I’ll get into—but I spent the next twenty-five years assuming Kantor’s book was a straightforward Yankee screed. Only in the last few years, when I discovered that he was also the author of a children’s book on Gettysburg that I had loved as a kid, did I first become mildly curious about, then genuinely interested in, and finally decide to read Andersonville.

I’m glad I did. Andersonville is a good book, if perhaps not a great one, and poses interesting questions for readers and writers of historical fiction.

The story of Camp Sumter

“Andersonville” is the popular name for Camp Sumter, a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp constructed in southern Georgia in early 1864. (The first prisoners arrived on this day 155 years ago.) Over its year and a half of existence, Andersonville received 45,000 Union POWs, who arrived by train from all theaters of war. 13,000 of them died.

Kantor sets out to tell the whole story of Camp Sumter. He begins with the land itself, exploring the woods and fields through Ira Claffey, a local planter whose three sons have all died in the Confederate army and whose plantation teeters on the edge of collapse through lack of manpower and cash. Ira meets a Confederate surveying crew looking for land for a new prison camp. They settle on a valley on the banks of Sweetwater Creek and construction begins. By the time the camp is finished and the prisoners have begun to arrive, we still have a good 600 pages to go.

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The novel excels in its narrowly focused sketches of incidental characters and the world in which they move. While Ira Claffey and his family’s losses frame the whole narrative, other characters flit in and out of the story—a white trash boy who joins the Georgia Reserves (just like Georgie in my novel Griswoldville) and becomes a guard; Captain Henry Wirz, the Swiss-born commander of the stockade; a local Presbyterian minister who tries to organize charitable donations for the prisoners; one of the camp surgeons; and many, many of the Union prisoners.

The prisoners’ chapters are particularly poignant, as they often give a prisoner’s entire life story up to his time in the camp. One harbors intense homesickness to get back to the German immigrant girl he fell in love with; another, having fled his intensely religious father, has become a prodigal son and falls in with the stockade’s villains; another has become deranged since his capture at Chickamauga and has turned informer for the Confederates, a status he comes to abhor; another is an Irish immigrant sailor trying desperately to dote on his underage boy lover; another, who learned criminality and murder at a young age in the immigrant slums of New York, gathers similarly cutthroat survivors to himself to form a gang; another, the scion of a privileged and worldly Jewish family, retreats inward, losing himself in prolonged reminiscences of his travels. Still others form pairs or trios, sometimes merely on the basis of having the same home state, to try to help each other survive. A few try to tunnel their way out, with tragic results.

And many historical figures—from the obvious Confederate officers like Wirz or his superior, General John Winder; to prisoners like Red Cap, a drummer boy who did clerical work for Wirz; diarists John Ransom and John McElroy; violent “Raider” William Collins; and Boston Corbett, a religious fanatic who, after his release, would become the man who killed John Wilkes Booth—wander in and out of the story. Even those characters that only appear for a single chapter are finely drawn, their life stories familiar, their fates worth worrying over.

The novel unfolds in an elephantine mid-century modernist style, a style that reminded me quite a bit of both Norman Mailer’s 1948 novel The Naked and the Dead and any number of William Faulkner’s books, if you can imagine that combination. Kantor is also interested in typically mid-twentieth century issues—nihilism, the meaninglessness of suffering, whether religion does or does not have anything to offer, and weird sex. He does not use quotation marks and his studies of the characters often freewheel into pure stream-of-conscious remembering.

It’s dense, it’s heavy, but the sheer accumulation of detail adds steadily to the book’s power. One comes to feel the world in which the novel takes place and to sense the immense variety of the people who live in it, of all the fully lived lives coming together in this particular place in southern Georgia. It’s powerful.

Unfortunately, it can also be punishing, something Kantor surely intended but that wears on the reader after a while. When one particularly prominent character is—apparently—shot at random by a guard, Kantor diverts us from his fate for a good twenty pages before revealing that, yes, he was killed instantly. Many of the deaths in the book, of young men wasted away to nothing by starvation, exposure, and diarrhea, moved me; that one felt like a cruel trick.

After the Raiders

Kantor also never entirely overcomes one particular narrative hurdle: What happened while all those prisoners were in Andersonville? Not much, honestly, and so large parts of the book depict people simply existing. Life in the camp was a continuous struggle, so there’s narrative meat there, but it drags in places, particularly once Kantor has finished with the most notorious incident in the camp: the trial and execution of the Raiders.

The Raiders were Union prisoners, many from New York City, who recreated the predatory gang environment of their urban slums and lived off of their fellow soldiers and prisoners through theft and murder. In response, a band of prisoners calling themselves Regulators tried to create a system of mutual protection and law enforcement and ultimately fought a battle with the Raiders. Having received permission from the Confederate authorities at the camp, a jury of recent arrivals—theoretically less biased—tried the Raiders’ ringleaders and their most violent enforcers and sentenced six to hang.

A true story, and a gripping one—right? Kantor capably dramatizes the incident with a steady drip of violence from the Raiders, futile resistance by the other prisoners, and a gradual increase in tension that finally explodes in the prisoner-on-prisoner war and the hangings. But the first batches of prisoners arrived in the late winter and early spring of 1864, and the Raiders were tried in July, making the Raiders’ run of the prison dramatic but short. With this out of the way, we’re still less than halfway through the camp’s history and only halfway through the book. The rest is good, but it never quite regains the narrative momentum of this solid third of the story.

In the end, relief finally comes for the addled, dropsical, hopeless prisoners when a large number are transferred to other camps in order to reduce overcrowding. General Winder, the general in charge of Confederate POW camps and the obvious villain of the piece, dies in South Carolina. The war nears its end. From here the story becomes somewhat unfocused, seldom revisiting Camp Sumter’s stockade and giving only the vaguest sense of how things end for a number of characters, finally concluding with the surviving Claffeys—defeated, returned to the United States once more—hiring on their former slaves as sharecroppers and watching the empty prison overgrow and crumble.

Character assassination?

Captain Henry Wirz (1823-65)

Captain Henry Wirz (1823-65)

Andersonville was published in 1955, just ten years after the end of the Second World War. That conflict, in which Kantor worked as a war correspondent, looms over this novel in obvious ways. An overpopulated prison camp in which a third of the inmates, who arrived by rail, died of disease, starvation, and at the hands of guards—and commanded by a German-speaking officer in a gray uniform? At the end of the novel, when Union cavalry officers arrive to arrest Wirz at his home, a more or less explicit discussion of the Nuremberg defense occupies the conversation. Camp Sumter will always look a little different since Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and Auschwitz joined it in the rearview mirror.

Kantor does depart from many of the immediate post-Civil War accounts of the prison by humanizing Henry Wirz—somewhat. He is a wildly exaggerated, hysterical, aggrieved man impotently trying to work out his frustrations, especially with a wounded arm that refuses to heal and a chain of command that gives him very limited real authority in his own camp. The result is his mismanagement of the prison, especially in times of prisoner unrest. Wirz’s immediate superiors, on the other hand, especially General Winder, are depicted as sadists intentionally trying to turn Andersonville into a charnel house and starve the Yankees—all propagandistic mischaracterizations originating immediately after the war.

The broader South, as seen through the Claffeys, is complicit as well. Their grief and bitterness at their terrible losses have seeded a deep desire to kill northerners at every opportunity. And though Ira Claffey in particular feels intense discomfort with the camp and the way honorably surrendered enemies are being treated, he and the others of his class are ultimately frozen into inaction by their ambivalence. And so the Yankees starve and waste away. Kantor explains Andersonville as the result of dark, archetypal resentments that somehow bring the cruelty of the camp into existence.

That makes for compelling literature but it doesn’t reflect reality and, thanks to the much wider readership awarded this Pulitzer Prize winner than any of the primary sources it was based upon, it has permanently skewed perceptions of Wirz, Andersonville, and what happened there. Subsequent dramatizations, including the TNT miniseries, have gone further. It is very difficult to watch that film version of Wirz without thinking of an unhinged Nazi commandant, a far cry from the pathetic figure in Kantor and the real person buried several layers down.

Good reading

So I finished reading Andersonville deeply conflicted. It is certainly a powerhouse of a novel, a modernist monument to what the written word can do in spinning whole lost and forgotten worlds into existence through an act of imagination, and its depiction of conditions in the camp, especially as the helpless prisoners weaken and die, is moving throughout—manifested as dread at the beginning of the novel, horror in the middle, and resignation and grief at the end. But it is also clearly a product of its time, obsessed with the things that preoccupied the post-World War II literary elite, and has only reinforced century-old myths and slanders about many of the people involved in the camp. As I wrote on Goodreads, “Four stars seems too low, but five is certainly too high.”

At Andersonville National Historic Site in December 2016

At Andersonville National Historic Site in December 2016

It’s a good book, but if you don’t want to invest the time and effort (literally—this book is a doorstop), check out William Marvel’s Andersonville: The Last Depot, an award-winning history published by Chapel Hill. Marvel includes all the major incidents dramatized in the novel, with special attention given to the Raiders, and assesses the charges eventually brought against Wirz at his trial, where he was convicted and hanged. It’s a well-researched, fair history of the camp from beginning to end.

Finally, nothing can substitute for a visit to the camp itself. I made the trek several years ago and have not forgotten it. Even the remoteness, a good forty minutes away from the nearest interstate, made an impression, and then there was the camp itself, with a few sections of recreated fenceline, the postbellum monuments, and the cemetery. If you’re interested in this topic, by all means read Kantor’s Andersonville, but make time to see the real place with your own eyes.

They Shall Not Grow Old

“Mind the wire.”

“Mind the wire.”

Last night I finally got to see They Shall Not Grow Old, a First World War documentary directed by Peter Jackson. It was magnificent—the best World War I documentary I’ve seen. Nothing I can say to recommend the film is as powerful as watching it, so: Go see it.

There are a couple of directions you can take a documentary on a topic as big as World War I. The one I think most of us are used to, courtesy of Ken Burns and the History Channel (once upon a time, anyway), is a God’s eye view, with talking heads by historians, maps, photos and sometimes reenactments and, depending on the subject, real historical footage. This approach mirrors the top-down narrative approach of most historical books on topics this big and historically remote.

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They Shall Not Grow Old takes a different tack, one I’ve appreciated more and more since discovering Sir John Keegan in grad school. In his seminal, discipline-changing book The Face of Battle, Keegan sought to explore not the cause-and-effect relationships leading to entire wars or even particular battles, but instead the “what was it like?” experience of combat. This gives us a grunt’s eye or worm’s eye view, a view in which the concrete details of daily existence—or the end of existence—are the focus, as they were for the people living through it. What was the weather like? How did it feel to be there? How much could you see? How did you sleep? What did you eat? And when? Did your boots rub and make blisters? How did a trench smell? What did it sound like? Perhaps most importantly—who were these soldiers?

They Shall Not Grow Old narrows its focus from the entire war to the lived experience specifically of British soldiers on the Western Front. Jackson, in a special behind-the-scenes feature that played after the end credits at the showing I attended, said his aim was to present “an accurate but generic depiction of combat” for this subset of soldiers. The film is the better for it, I think, in the same way that Dante or Jane Austen have told us so much about the human condition by minutely examining and dramatizing their tiny corner of the world. The effect of a film like this would not have been as powerful had it tried to encompass all the nations that fought.

The big draw is the scrubbed up and colorized footage from the war, and rightly so. Jackson and his team have done something really remarkable here. By slowing the old film’s framerate, stabilizing shrunken and jittery old film prints or negatives, and repairing scratches and dust, the footage ceases to be an artifact and becomes footage again—a view of people, like us, going about their business, like we do. It’s a cliche, but this hundred year old footage comes to life.

Jackson, assisted by foley artists, has also added sound to the film, further enhancing the sense of what it was like. Perhaps the most impressive feat is adding voice to the silent footage. Jackson enlisted forensic lipreaders to discern what, exactly, the men in the footage were saying (my favorite: “Hi, mum!”) and then, in some impressive historical detective work, figured out what regiments the men belonged to and hired actors from those respective parts of Britain to record the dialogue. Mutters, giggles, coughs, exclamations, jokes, and even mundane talk—a sergeant pointing out where to lay down a load, an officer reading a pep talk to his company—all make it real.

Finally, the film features no talking heads by academics or novelists, no narration by voiceover artists, but instead a audio montage of actual World War I veterans recorded during the 1960s and 70s. You’re seeing the world they saw, as much as they saw it as Jackson could manage, and hearing them describe it themselves. It’s a profoundly unselfish way to tell the story, stepping back as much as possible and bringing the audience to the past, not subjecting the past to the present.

The end result is impressive and profoundly moving. Even those of us who have been moved by these photos and jumpy old newsreels have never experienced them like this. Over the course of the film, you feel like you get to know some of these anonymous faces; something of the character, the feel of the British tommy comes through, and when they suffer and die you feel it with them. The audience I watched the film with laughed with the soldiers, chuckled at their antics, cringed at their injuries, and cried when tragedy struck.

This film presents the kind of understanding—of these men, of their lives, of what they lived through—that you can otherwise only get from memoirs and makes it graphically real. Jackson and his team deserve all the praise they’re getting.

They Shall Not Grow Old is a fitting monument to a vanished generation. Go out and see it as soon as you can.