We Went to War
Following on from the 1970 documentary I Was a Soldier, the late British director Michael Grigsby’s We Went to War is a sequel of sorts. It picks up from where the famed original left off by interviewing veterans who were involved in one of the gloomiest chapters of American history – the Vietnam War.
The soldiers interviewed in I Was a Soldier return 43 years later to discuss the everlasting impact of that dark period on themselves and their loved ones of various generations. One woman says of her father: “He was sent to a war which was completely senseless. I can’t get over the fact he died for no reason, and I can’t reconcile the anger.”
Other suitably poignant moments include former soldier Dennis’ mournful confession that he was never able to express to his family the horrors of Agent Orange and its psychological effect; it took him “over twenty years to alleviate the nightmares.”
In terms of narrative, it’s well executed. The subjects candidly express the impact of the war on their lives without any sentimental interjections from the director. There is a thought-provoking scene in which a veteran speaks with soldiers returning from Iraq and discovers similarities in their condition, both of them having endured the emotional grinder.
It’s hard to be critical about a documentary that deals with such delicate subject matter, but We Went to War does unfortunately have a few problems. The film is dragged down significantly from a technical point of view, constraining the arousal of the emotion necessary to induce the audience’s sympathy. Long tracking shots of the Texan landscape occur with alarming regularity. Perhaps Grigsby had the intention of capturing a static portrait of the bleak environment, but the shots appear so frequently that they only jar as a result.
Incredibly overused, the recurrent five minute interludes of birch woods and cattle become exasperatingly tedious. Soundbites and on screen conversations from I Was A Soldier also take up a lot of the documentary’s short duration, and you can’t help but feel that they go beyond trying to contextualize the piece, functioning instead as a filler.
One veteran states that their life has been “neither good nor bad”; the same can be said for the documentary itself. While informed by subjects who speak with searing honesty, We Went to War is sadly marred by misjudged technical devices that cloud the documentary’s intention to expose the several hells of war. It is however given significant poignancy being Grigsby’s last film before his death, and it’s fitting that his final film is essentially about the end of journeys.
We Went to War is released in selected cinemas on 29th March 2013.