Back in 1970, British filmmaker Michael Grigsby was one of the first to document the experiences of American military personnel returning home from the Vietnam War in his film I Was A Soldier, made for Granada Television in the UK. In that landmark documentary, Grigsby chose as his subjects three young men from Texas: David, Dennis, and Lamar. 40 years later, Grigsby, along with fellow filmmaker Rebekah Tolley, revisits the lives of the veterans and their families in We Went To War.
Grigsby, who sadly died shortly after this film was completed, was a part of the Free Cinema movement of the 1950s and 60s, along with celebrated directors such as Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz. Working outside of the film industry, the main ethos behind Free Cinema, which had much in common with the Vérité movement, was simplicity and integrity; a kick against the big-budget, studio-driven system of the day. It's manifesto was thus:No film can be too personal. The image speaks. Sound amplifies and comments. Size is irrelevant. Perfection is not an aim. An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude Grigsby clearly carried those words with him to the end, as We Went To War is a testament to that proclamation.
To be clear right from the start, this is not a fact -filled documentary about the Vietnam War and the soldiers who fought in it. You'll find no "blood and guts stories" (as one of the film's subjects, Dennis, calls them) here. No tales of derring-do. No political commentary. This is a human story; a meditation; a portrait of lives forever stained by conflict. This is a quiet, understated, yet powerful and affecting piece of film-making. Significantly, Grigsby lets his movie breathe, leaving room for interpretation and supposition. Interview footage, old and new, is interspersed with shots of the ochre-hued Texan landscape and layered snippets of archive audio recordings. These spaces ingrain the film with a palpable texture and create a mood of contemplation and reflection, but, more significantly, they allow the words being spoken by the veterans and their families to resonate. Comparatively few words are said throughout the film's 77mins, but what is spoken can often be heartbreaking, and it stays with you long after the credits have rolled. A picture can paint a thousand words - the image speaks - and so Grigsby often chooses to simply allow the camera to linger on the faces of his subjects, letting their eyes doing the talking.
Indeed, images are as resonant as words in this film. From the lines on the faces of the veterans, the dilapidated town storefronts and wide open Texan vistas, to the sunsets, still lakes and railroads, every image seems to carry a weight of pathos and significance.
While there's no doubting the emotion and power of the material here, I would like to have seen the film delve a little deeper into the lives of these men and heard more about their experiences, their lives pre and post war, the lives of their families, and the towns they live in. However, at the same time I also feel that doing so would perhaps have diminished the poetic tone of the film.
This is a work of great poignancy and many layers of significance. What could easily have been a stilted, relentless parade of talking heads and archive footage - which would be the usual approach to this type of subject matter - is instead transformed into something far more lyrical, atmospheric and mellifluous. Perhaps not a film that will be enjoyed by all - it's quiet, ponderous, reflective approach may not be to all tastes - but a rewarding, humbling, emotive experience awaits those willing to invest the time.
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About the reviewer
Simon Lee Tranter (Creamtrumpet)
May 8, 2009
Jan 24, 2015 05:53 PM UTC
In 1970, British director Michael Grigsby made one of the first films about soldiers returning home from the battlefields of Vietnam. Over forty years later Grigsby returns to Texas with fellow filmmaker Rebekah Tolley, to the stories of veterans David, Dennis & Lamar.