They Shall Not Grow Old – Review

Tonight the S&G attended the premiere of Sir Peter Jackson’s eagerly-awaited new film, They Shall Not Grow Old.  The film’s trailer told us all that we needed to know: in 60 seconds we saw the familiar jerky, grainy silent images from the Western Front transformed into warm colour, played at real-life speed in modern high definition.

With the footage thus transformed, lip readers could easily see what was being said and actors with the correct dialect for each regiment brought their words back to life against a background hubbub of the genuine noises of war.

Our screening was not the ritzy all-star affair at the British Film Institute with Prince William, Mark Kermode and some former Hobbits in tow. This was just one of 250 simultaneous screenings taking place across the country, which gave a telling snapshot of those for whom this film will have the most resonance.

The majority of our sell-out audience was white haired and, as we waited in the lobby, appeared somewhat nervous looking. No doubt they were remembering their own grandfathers, if they had survived, and all the others of that generation whom today’s pensioners had known doubtless as nurturing figures but equally taciturn and seldom willing to address their war with younger generations.

One sensed that they knew this film would be a chance to glimpse into the shadows under the stairs and into the uneasy silences of their childhood.

Of today’s children there were very few to be seen. The youngest members of the audience were generally 40- to 50-year old men: some bookish, some city types fresh off the 17:30 from Waterloo, some shaven-headed reprobates juggling plastic beakers of beer. Some brought their wives but few could induce their children along. Across the auditorium there was an air of quiet reverence long before the lights went down.

Before the main feature there was a short intro to 1418now.org, the Lottery-funded council of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport that has presided over the centennial arts programme since 2014 and commissioned Jackson’s film. We were treated to an abundance of make-believe Tommies with one’s eye being drawn to the smattering of Afro-Caribbean faces placed rather ham-fistedly in their midst, whilst women in brightly-coloured hijabs looked on in wonder.

Mercifully, this festival of inclusiveness and reversed cultural appropriation only lasted for a few minutes. That’s not to say that the archive footage in Jackson’s film was lacking in colour of any kind – battalions of Sikh infantry, Chinese labourers and West African supply troops were all present and correct. But when youngsters do come to watch the film, they will doubtless wonder why the token black soldiers are not there among the Sussex Yeomanry and Lancashire Pals, as they are whenever Doctor Who visits the Western Front.

The colour palette of the restored footage will be familiar to anyone who has seen the great battles of Middle Earth that Jackson has conjured on screen. The Tommies’ waterproof capes melt into the earth like Frodo and Sam’s Elven robes. The mud, blood and rain have been recreated so well in the movie-maker’s most celebrated trilogies… mainly because J.R.R. Tolkein himself lived as a soldier on the Western Front.

There were moments of beautiful humanity when German and British soldiers met after battle; belly-laughs at the soldiers’ absurd sense of humour and always the threat of the raw violence and fleshy carnage that they created. When it was all over and the credits rolled, some in the audience applauded – but not many. It was too stark and powerful for that.

After the film came a Q&A with Sir Peter Jackson, hosted by Mark Kermode. He described They Shall Not Grow Old as probably the most personal film that he has ever made, inspired by the awe in which he held his own veteran grandfather who served from 1910 to 1919, and the lifetime Jackson himself has spent learning as much as he can about the war.

Quite rightly, he lamented the fictional movies that persist in imposing a sense of victimhood upon the soldiers of the Western Front that we have bestowed upon them. He had much more to say as well although at our screening there was an interruption by a young woman who stood with a clenched fist and barked out some slogan or other (it sounded like ‘object and you rule’), until she eventually ran out of the theatre, while we all looked at each other and said ‘what?’

Probably a Cambridge under-graduate, they seem to go in for that sort of thing these days. There will be a second screening and Q&A tomorrow purely for schools and colleges. We wish them all the luck in the world.

The film will now go on a limited cinematic run and will then be screened by the BBC on 11 November. If you can, go to the cinema and drink it in at full size. No matter what, please take the time out to sit and watch it on TV. It is only a snapshot of a very limited part of the war but it is real and heartfelt and, for that, it is truly astounding.

A white and silver anniversary

Everyone loves an anniversary. And a landmark achievement. F1 people are usually rather good at this sort of thing, as all the sponsors love a bit of Victoria Sponge cake with their logos on it and there are any number of websites that will run a photo.

If you’re lucky a crew from Sky F1 will come over and film each other dribbling jam on their shirts and doing emotive pieces to camera about your heritage. All the fun of the fair.

This year, Monaco has become Finland-on-Sea at Grand Prix time: the 1982 world champion Keke Rosberg being shoehorned back into his title-winning Williams FW08 with his 2016 world championship-winning son Nico (officially German but…), rolling out alongside him in his victorious Mercedes.

Dd9nzreVAAA9YGQ.jpg-large

The Rosbergs, père et fils (Dickie Stanford)

Meanwhile Finn du jour Valtteri Bottas has chosen to wear a replica Mika Häkkinen crash helmet, to mark something or other we expect.

Perhaps this is all a bid by Formula 1’s new American owners to pave the way for a highly lucrative Finnish Grand Prix deal. That would be a popular move, if rather hard going on the kidneys.

Yet some anniversaries really are special. Last year, Ferrari marked 70 years as a constructor of racing cars – and perhaps more importantly as a constructor of the myths about racing cars. Here at the S&G we shall be cutting the cake next year on the 90th anniversary of Scuderia Ferrari’s founding, but there were some nice moments in 2017 too.

maxresdefault

One anniversary appears to have happened without great celebration, however. It seems remarkable in this day and age that anything in motor sport can happen without a plinth being erected outside Lord March’s conservatory, a tribute crash helmet design or a commemorative piece of regalia – but here it is: in Spain, Mercedes achieved 110 race wins for its Grand Prix cars in 110 years of competition.

Now, S&G regulars will of course remember that Mercedes took itself away from Grand Prix racing as a constructor for 55 years on account of the Le Mans disaster, so it can hardly be called a continuous history in Grand Prix racing. Its attendance was also a bit patchy in the 1920-30s on account of many things (not least Germany’s international standing after World War 1), and was similarly banned after World War 2 until the 1951 season.

But take all of that aside – 110 years is a thumping period across which to have been winning Grands Prix. And an average of one per year for more than a century is a good story… two per year if you discount 1955-2010… and roughly three per year across the 40 season of Grand Prix racing that have actually been undertaken by Mercedes.

No mean feat.

Surely Monaco, the blue riband race of the year, should be playing host to the great snorting white beasts from the rough-hewn roads of Dieppe and Lyon, Caracciola’s SSK and the awe-inspiring Silver Arrows of the Thirties? Mika Häkkinen should be there in person, wearing his own helmet and tramping round in Fangio’s W196 (and complaining about its brakes again), rather than a bunch of beloved Scandiwegians.

4801661542_c23c84aaa4_b

Why so shy? What have the patisseries of the Côte d’Azur done to deserve such a massive loss of potential earnings for silver-iced tartes tatin? What is going on here?

Perhaps Mercedes is fighting shy of claiming the 1937 AVUS-Rennen as a win for its Grand Prix cars because it is where they were dressed in extraordinary all-enveloping bodywork and hit more than 220mph. Perhaps victories like the Eifelrennen, Coppa Acerbo and Coppa Ciano are omitted from the total because, while they were for Grand Prix cars, they weren’t actual Grands Prix.

If that’s the case, then Mercedes has at least bought itself some time to actually put an anniversary party together. They are unlikely to win in Monaco but Canada is Lewis Hamilton’s fiefdom and that means – oh yes! – next up is France. So if Mercedes drops the mad 1937 race from its tally, it can claim 110 wins in 110 years in time for its return to the nation where it all began: France.

Christian_Lautenschlager_in_his_Mercedes_at_the_1908_French_Grand_Prix_at_Dieppe_(5)

Now wouldn’t that be an idea?

A Great War hero: Part 2 – call me Rickenbacker

After learning his trade as the protégé of pioneering automobile constructor and racing driver Lee Frayer, at the start of 1912, the 21-year-old Eddie Rickenbacher elected to become a professional racer.

Throughout 1912 and 1913 his bread and butter was earned on dirt tracks and board ovals at county fairs and anywhere else that paid a buck for driving fast. Or, for that matter, driving slowly – a particular favourite of the crowds being a contest to see who could go slowest and finish last without stalling the car.

County fair races brought out the crowds

County fair races brought out the crowds across America

When they weren’t racing, Eddie and his fellow drivers worked as handimen, mechanics and salesmen. Anything they could do to bring in the money they needed to get to the next racetrack and go at it – a travelling troupe of gladiators.

It was a risky business for competitors and fans alike and disaster was never far away. In mid-1913 an incident at an event in Mason City, Iowa, saw Reichenbacher’s car hit spectators at an unlicenced motor race. As a result his licence was revoked until the start of 1914.

After cooling his heels for several months, Eddie reappeared in California during February 1914 amid the most bizarre circumstances.

Mack Sennett, movie star and proprietor of the Keystone movie studios, was an enthusiastic patron of American motor sport. He owned and ran a Fiat grand prix car that he had entered in the 1914 Vanderbilt Cup Qualification Race in Santa Monica.

Mack Sennett's Keystone movies ruled the world

Mack Sennett’s Keystone movies ruled the world

During practice tragedy struck Sennett’s team when the big Fiat, driven by Dave Lewis, went out of control and ended up in the crowd. Six spectators were injured, among whom was the 69-year-old Civil War veteran, Louis G. Smith.

Mr. Smith succumbed to his injuries and the Fiat was deemed too badly damaged to start the race – but Sennett was determined to win the greatest road race in America, so he invested in a year-old Mason racing car, which was entered for a new and apparently rather colourful replacement driver.

According to Sennett’s inventive press information, the man at the wheel was called ‘Baron Reichenbacher’. He was described as: ‘A young Prussian nobleman who had fallen victim to the deadly Bacillus Motorus. Crazed by a lust for speed, he had absconded from the Vienna Military Institute in a stolen Mercedes. Expelled from the institute and disinherited by his father, he went to America to enter the AAA tour…’

It was, of course, hokum worthy of one of Sennett’s two-reel slapstick adventures. The ‘Baron’ was none other than Eddie, but his starring role was not to last: unexpectedly heavy rainfall caused the race to be delayed for several days, in which time both Dave Lewis and the big Fiat were returned to active duty.

Not only that, but Sennett convinced the race organisers to allow him to film the race for a new comedy feature – Mabel at the Wheel.

Sennett's Fiat stars in Mabel at the Wheel

Sennett’s Fiat stars in Mabel at the Wheel

Nevertheless, Eddie was back racing once again – this time for the princely sum of $3 per week plus his share of any spoils – for a team run by two German-born brothers from Iowa who had been instrumental in designing Mason racing cars and were busy setting up their own team. They were August and Frederick Duesenberg.

The Duesenberg brothers made Eddie their racing team manager as well as their leading driver. Their next race would be the 1914 Indianapolis 500 in which Eddie finished tenth, collecting a purse of $1,400.

'Fast Eddie' at the wheel of the Duesenberg brothers' entry for the 1914 Indianapolis 500

‘Fast Eddie’ at the wheel of the Duesenberg brothers’ entry for the 1914 Indianapolis 500

Five weeks later, in Sioux City, Eddie Rickenbacher won his first race, collecting $10,000 for his trouble and becoming one of the stars of American motor sport. Star status appealed to the young racer, who began to cultivate his celebrity. Stories were told that he had set speed records in the mighty Blitzen Benz during 1912 – fabrications that Eddie never troubled to deny.

He also gave himself a new name, entering first as E.V. Rickenbacher (not having been given a middle name by his parents, Eddie chose the letter ‘V’ for its impact and, later, settled on ‘Vernon’ as his chosen name). In mid-1915 he completed the transformation by changing his surname to Rickenbacker.

By this time, Eddie had parted company with the Duesenbergs, whose racing successes, while, impressive, did nothing for their finances. Instead he chose to drive for the current giants of European motor racing: Peugeot. Having won Italy’s Targa Florio and the Grand Prix in France, the rakish blue cars were now aiming for American glory – and Rickenbacker wanted to be the man to give it to them.

Part of Eddie’s decision was influenced by the fact that the Peugeot team favoured racing on the open road. ‘I always preferred the challenge and variety of road racing to going around and around like a ball on a string,’ he later said.

The roads were dusty and unpaved while the cars were faster, more powerful and noisier than anything Eddie had previously encountered. He was in love with the thrill of racing but also wary of its inherent danger, and so in order to stay in touch with his riding mechanic, Eddie fashioned facemasks which featured a rudimentary intercom.

Eddie Rickenbacker and mechanic demonstrating his intercom design

Eddie Rickenbacker and mechanic demonstrating his intercom design

‘You didn’t win races because you had more guts,’ he said later. ‘You won because you knew how to take the turns and baby your engine. It wasn’t all just shut your eyes and grit your teeth.’

The facemasks worked but were not a spectacular success. Neither was Eddie’s time with Peugeot spectacularly successful – or long lived. The cars were beautiful and technically brilliant, but needed fine tuning and patience that, perhaps, their American keepers lacked.

Furthermore, it was clear to Rickenbacker the star that American race fans wanted to see American drivers racing to victory in American machines. The final nail in Peugeot’s coffin for Rickenbacker was that Europe had become embroiled in war, and there was no guarantee that cars or parts would be readily available.

Once again he jumped ship – this time joining the home-grown Prest-O-Lite team alongside Barney Oldfield and Bill Carlson, racing Maxwell cars. The irony was that Eddie’s seat at Peugeot was filled by the Italian-British driver Dario Resta, who proceeded to win virtually every major race in America – much to Eddie’s chagrin.

The Prest-O-Lite Maxwell ready for the 1915 Indy 500

The Prest-O-Lite Maxwell ready for the 1915 Indy 500

Nevertheless, the Maxwell years brought Eddie Reichenbacker his greatest successes and unprecedented wealth – earning $80,000 in 1916, when he was ranked fourth overall by the American Automobile Association.

He also effectively ran the team – including the discipline of its staff and a series of secret signals to be carried on boards held up from the pit lane. The team triumphed in local and regional events, but at Indianapolis and the other major events its cars were outclassed.

It was clear that to fulfil his ambitions, he needed the sophisticated engineering of a European car. Although near the peak of his profession in American racing, Rickenbacker needed a major title to cement his reputation and earning power – and, while American fans might prefer to see him win  in American machinery, he would have to be pragmatic about it.

Thus, in the winter of 1916, Rickenbacker opened dialogue with Louis Coatalen, the French design genius who had turned the British marque, Sunbeam, into a major sporting force before the outbreak of war. Coatalen had developed a 5-litre six-cylinder racing engine that was ideal for Indianapolis but currently gathering dust – opening an extraordinary chapter in the life of ‘Fast Eddie’.