They Shall Not Die Old. A Review.

“Woe to the statesman whose reasons for entering a war do not appear so plausible at its end as at its beginning.” Otto von Bismark


They Shall Not Die Old. Directed by Peter Jackson

In directing the documentary film They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame has produced a cinematic tour-de-force. Made at the request of the British Imperial War Museum, Jackson used some 100 hours of the Museum’s contemporaneous documentary footage shot on site along with 600 hours of interviews with British soldiers who lived, fought and died in the trenches of World War I.

The story is not told through an analysis of command decisions; nor does it romanticize war through stories of heroic feats and indomitable courage. It tells the story through the eyes of the British soldiers who lived, fought and died in the trenches. 

It is a compelling way to tell a powerful story. It puts the viewer right in the trenches with the soldiers. You can see the fear mixed with boredom. You see the soldiers performing mundane tasks amid constant shelling. You watch them create coping mechanisms to deal with the stress, like making tea with the boiling water produced by the cooling systems of their machine guns, all the while knowing they could be killed at any instant.  

When the call to war came in 1914, scores of young British men came from farms and factories to enlist to fight in the Great War. They didn’t question the war or its aims; they took up arms because they thought  it was their duty. Their nation called; there was a job to be done and they were going to do it.  

Many of the enlistees were just boys—16 to 18 years old—who were too young to enlist. But they lied (and were encouraged to lie) about their age so as to be eligible. They were the cannon fodder who, when ordered to do so, went over the top only to be slaughtered by murderous German machine gun fire.  Before it was over, about 1 million soldiers from Britain and its empire would be killed. 

And that was just Britain and its Empire. Russia suffered about 1.7 million military deaths. Estimates of military deaths of Allied powers range from 5 million to 6.5 million in total. Similarly, The Central Powers led by Germany lost between 3.5 and 4.5 million. Between them the combatants suffered military deaths somewhere between 8.5 and 11 million men. Estimates for the total number of civilian and military casualties that include disease and other factors run as high as 40 million people. 

World War I was among the greatest of all catastrophes in human history and 100 years later there is still no definitive answer as to its cause. Moreover the slaughter didn’t end with the Armistice of November 11, 1918; it was merely put on hold until it was relaunched as World War II with Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Sixty million perished in World War II, most of them civilians, the overwhelming majority of whom were killed by the Germans and Russians. 

World War I did more than usher in World War II. It was also the end of an era. Progressives recognized the power of the war model for reorganizing society around the aims of a central government. And so began the militarization of the West and the organization—or reorganization—of Western society with government at its center. Checks and balances were out; the imperial and ever growing U.S. Presidency was in, and governance by  experts in the bureaucracy would become the norm.   

The result has been profound—-and mostly unrecognized. In large part because the population of the United States is being transformed from a self-reliant one into a subservient one, dependent on government largesse. 

And so now, 100 years after the end of World War I, after the creation of countless agencies, programs and commissions, public administration in the United States would be unrecognizable to the Founders. The government of the United States has become an unaccountable behemoth. It spends trillions of dollars a year, mostly on income transfers, while running trillion dollar deficits without a thought for how to pay it off. 

Virtually every facet of American life is regulated, mostly indirectly, through agency generated rules and regulations, to a degree that is an affront to the U.S. Constitution. Traditional sources of authority are under government attack along with basic liberties that we used to take for granted. Civil Society is increasingly co-opted by the central government. 

 Live and let live has been tossed aside in favor of strict conformity and shaming that would make William White’s Organization Man of the 1950s recoil. The increasingly bitter polarization of American politics is clearly the result of the rejection of subsidiarity in favor of a relentless drive to centralization and social engineering that represent the beating heart of the progressive project. 

Yet despite its obvious failure to make good on its promises, the Progressive onslaught continues. We now are faced with demands for a raft of pipe dreams including “free” college, Medicare for all—when we can’t pay for the one we have—and a Green New Deal fantasy that promises to achieve net-zero emissions in 10 years. The utopians as ever, are undeterred by past failure. 

The Great War, both directly and indirectly, caused the suffering and death of hundreds of millions of people in the 20th century. It unleashed wave after wave of utopian dreams that ended, as always, in misery. The Western democracies succeeded in spite of, not because of, the utopians. 

We are again confronted with militant utopians who know what is best for us and intend to show us whether we like it or not. At the same time the distribution of power around the globe seems to be drifting away from Western liberalism. Fraying western alliances and western cultural irresolution, combined with the challenges posed by the emergence of powerful authoritarian states makes the world a tinderbox not unlike 1914. 

It is impossible to see the young innocent faces of the soldiers in “They Shall Not Die Old” without thinking about how we got here, and how we can avoid the traps that produced the catastrophes of the 20th century. They Shall Not Die Old is not a film meant to be about politics. But its relentless focus on the foot soldiers who bore the cost of their leaders’ folly should give us pause. Especially when considering radical proposals being tossed around with such  striking insouciance by followers who have convinced themselves they are actually leaders.


“Silence” by Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese’s Silence is a complicated film. Based on a novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, it tells the story of 2 Jesuit priests in the 17th century who set out for Japan to find their mentor, Father Ferreira (played by Liam Nelson). Father Ferreira has gone missing and is rumored to have renounced his Christian faith.


The mission of the two priests, Father Rodgrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) is especially hazardous because Japan is in the midst of a brutal persecution of Christian missionaries and converts in an attempt to rid the island country of Christianity once and for all. The persecution tries to get Christians to renounce their faith, most especially by forcing them to violate symbols of the faith by, among other things, publicly spitting on a crucifix.



Scorsese pulls no punches in depicting the savagery of the persecution. There are burnings at the stake; beheadings and crucifixions galore that are designed to maximize suffering before death finally come as a relief. But it isn’t sadism for sadism’s sake. It has a point, and that point is to dissuade would be converts, and then to persuade the already converted, and especially the missionaries, to renounce their faith. The obvious analogy is to ISIS.


The priests, who are caught relatively early on, pray for guidance and courage as they face their persecutors. But as time goes by they fear there is no answer for their prayers. They hear silence. And so at a most basic level the film is a story of the struggle for belief and meaning in a cold and pitiless world gone mad. And, as Scorsese makes clear, it isn’t just any belief or Religion that will do. It is Christian religious belief.


Scorsese presents the struggle on several levels. The first is with respect to the priests as they try to cope with the predicament they find themselves in after they are captured. Is it permissible for them to act strategically and to pretend to renounce their faith to save others? Are the priests really acting like Christians if they hold out, but others must suffer in their place as a result?


At another level he presents the problem of defining just authority. The priests who smuggle themselves into Japan make claims to universalism. Their beliefs are religious, not political. But Japanese political authorities see the world very differently. They view Christianity as a mortal threat. In fact, they see the Christian claim to universalism as the heart of the threat.


Claims to universalism, the inherent dignity of the individual and free will are theologically indispensable to Christianity, as is the view that human nature is essentially fixed, not infinitely malleable. These ideas are now, and always have been, threatening to Kings, Queens, dictators, authoritarians and totalitarians as well as utopians of all varieties. For they look at the Church in purely secular terms, as a competitor for power and influence.


To wall off the dangers posed by the West and Christianity, Japanese political authorities decided to keep Japan isolated. For example, only the Dutch were permitted to send their ships to trade with Japan, and the sailors were not permitted to bring religious objects like medals, crucifixes and rosaries on land with them. Here the allegory to the Middle East is unmistakable. In Saudi Arabia for instance, churches are not permitted, nor is it permissible to possess religious items from faiths other than Islam, even for Western guest workers.


The analogy to the Middle East is not the only one on display. There is another, albeit a subtler one. The Grand Inquisitor, who manages the Japanese persecution, is not all that interested in simply killing off peasants who profess Christian belief. To prevent Christianity from taking root, he means to publicly break the priests to the yoke of the State. Once he does that, the priests are no longer a threat. They are worse than neutered; they are transformed into instruments of the regime. It is a profound betrayal on the order of Winston’s in George Orwell’s novel 1984.


In 1984, Winston was finally broken by Big Brother when he screamed for his torturers to “do it to Julia” (his lover) so he could be relieved of the agony of his worst nightmare. His betrayal signaled his brokenness. Once broken, the State could proceed to execute him. When they did so Orwell describes Winston as content and happy as the executioner’s bullet entered his brain.


But there are differences in the two cases. Winston betrayed a person, his lover. Once broken, Winston was no longer useful to the State and could be killed. In Silence, the priests are meant to be useful to the State, and so are turned into instruments of the State. The State means to use them to control what people believe as well as how they behave.


Which of course brings us to the case of Little Sisters of the Poor vs. Burwell (2016). In that case the Obama Administration, through the Affordable Care Act, tried to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to provide or finance coverage for contraceptives including abortafacients, despite their well-established religious objection to doing so. After the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the Little Sisters, the Obama Administration admitted that it could achieve its goals in ways that did not require the contraceptive mandate. Which means that the point of the exercise was to break the Little Sisters to the yoke of the State.


There are lessons and analogies in Silence everywhere you look. It is in every respect a thinking man’s movie. It presents excruciatingly difficult dilemmas for which there are no easy answers, and it doesn’t pretend there are easy answers.   There is sufficient ambiguity right up to and including the end of the film, so that the questions and conflicts raised still linger after the final credits roll.


Silence cost $50 million to make and is projected to make just 2 to 3 million dollars its first weekend. That is unfortunate, but not altogether surprising. At 2 hours and 39 minutes, the movie is relatively long. It is decidedly adult. The actors are not the politically correct comic book super heroes that are all the rage these days, and the dialogue is often subtle and nuanced. It is well worth seeing.



Rogue One

In “Rogue One”, prequel to the original Star Wars film released in 1977, the mighty walking tanks of the Empire seem vaguely like Godzilla trampling through Tokyo. Chalk that up to Gareth Edwards, director of Monsters (2010) and the 2014 release of—Godzilla. But while Godzilla was a truly awful movie—in fact a truly awful series—Rogue One sparkles.

There is the usual jousting among the critics over the perennial question of what does it all mean, with some arguing that this is the first adult Star Wars movie in the series. There is something to that claim. This is more than just a shoot-em-up, although there is plenty of that. In this film some of the good guys get shot, which is relatively rare in the just-for–kids genre.

The movie calls to mind the Peloponnesian Wars with the Empire (Sparta) fighting to put down the Rebellion (Athens). The Empire is a military state. The Empire has a bit of a glass ceiling problem though; women appear to be almost totally absent from their midst. Needless to say the Empire maintains its rule with an iron hand of terror; its soldiers follow orders unblinkingly, and of course there is a brutal hierarchy of power with the Emperor at its pinnacle and Darth Vador as first henchman. Kind of like the IRS.

The Rebellion on the other hand is idealistic. It runs on hope, as we are reminded a couple of times. Its members are there for “The Cause”. The Rebellion, as you might expect, is kind of fractious. The members have their own minds. There is a Senate, so the Rebellion is democratic. And it has a President, not an Emperor. The President, like the eventual leader of the Rebellion (Felicity Jones), is a woman so they seem to have solved that glass ceiling problem that the Empire’s bureaucrats seem so unconcerned about. And the Rebellion has the best music.

One problem the Rebellion hasn’t solved is the project the Empire is so busy working on: the Death Star. If the Empire can demonstrate its power with the Death Star, the Rebellion will fall apart and all the inhabitants of the Galaxy will be forced to live under the thumb of the Empire.

But the Rebellion does have members who have The Force. And The Force is not to be taken lightly. It allows a blind Jedi to shoot down Empire fighter jets with a Bow and Arrow, not to mention fighting off machine gun toting Empire soldiers with little more than a walking stick and some Kung-Foo moves thrown in for good measure. Who says this movie is not aimed at adults?

All in all, Rogue One is very entertaining, and well worth seeing. Especially in 3D in an IMAX Theatre.


Arrival: They’re Here…

Arrival is not your ordinary Alien Invasion Flick. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, its central premise is that communication is the key to understanding. In this it has more in common with films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind than it does with War of the Worlds.

Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, is a Professor of linguistics who is tasked with discovering the intentions of the visitors from outer space. To do this she must establish some form of communication with the aliens before a war breaks out. But she faces two problems. The first is that the aliens communicate using noises that appear to bear no resemblance to language on earth. No surprise there.

The second and more fundamental problem is an issue that linguists wrestle with. The idea is that the brain rewires itself depending on the language being used. So Professor Banks not only has to decode the alien language, she has to learn how to think in the language in order to communicate with the aliens.

The idea that the quality of human thought is in part dependent on the type of language being used is a profoundly important one. It implies that changing how words are used and understood can change the way we think about things. In her excellent book Bourgeois Equality Deidre McCloskey more than tips her hat to this idea. She argues that the growth of Market Liberalism first took off in the English speaking countries principally because the language adapted to changes in the way business was being done. She shows that words like trust, honor and gentleman, which formerly referenced class status, began to be associated with individual behavior.

This shift in language paved the way for Adam Smith’s attack on mercantilism, just as it allowed respect for a man’s labor. No longer was it necessary to be royalty; a member of the bourgeoisie could be respected as honorable and a gentleman. This was a fundamental change in the social order.

In the 20th century it was Orwell who brought the point home with his novel 1984 and his essay “Politics and the English Language”. Language shapes the discussion and provides a conceptual baseline for understanding the world around us. Unfortunately this lesson still has to be learned before political correctness washes over everything, making debate discussion and scientific inquiry all but impossible. But I digress.

In Arrival, conflict or the potential for it, occurs at many levels. For instance, political rivalries surface among the various countries and political blocs on Earth. There are power struggles within countries between scientists and their respective political and military establishments. And of course, there is the problem of whether the intentions of the aliens are peaceful or not. In each case the fundamental problem is that decision-making must take place under conditions of limited information exacerbated by imperfect communication. And at any moment, taking a wrong step can easily lead to a catastrophe.

In this the movie bears no small resemblance to Graham Allison’s classic study of the Cuban missile crisis “Essence of Decision.” In that situation the wrong move by either party could have led to a catastrophic nuclear exchange. And the central problem faced by the respective counterparties was understanding the motivations and incentives of the opposing side while still managing internal political pressures, all under conditions of imperfect information and limited communication.

Amy Adams, who dominates the film, is quite believable as Professor Banks. And for once we have a film where the various other players—the Defense Department, soldiers on the ground and political strategists to name a few—are not all reduced to the usual shoot first and ask questions later neanderthals.

All told, Arrival is thoughtful, entertaining and well worth seeing.

Rated PG, 1 hour, 56 minutes.