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Review: We Went to War

March 25, 2013

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia


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We Went to War is a powerful piece of documentary film making that subtly and intelligently explores a powerful subject matter. Back in 1970, during the Vietnam War, a young British Director Michael Grigsby set about making a documentary film about three young veterans who’d just returned home to Texas, U.S.A from service. This documentary, I Was a Soldier, is now considered a classic. Forty years later Grigsby, with his co-author Rebekah Tolley, return to see how the veterans’ lives progressed. By exploring the lives and first hand experiences of three individuals this film offers a fascinating insight into how an experience as powerful as going to war shapes the lives of those who went to battle.

The film offers some highly adept cinematography and starts with some stunning panning shots of the Texan desert in order to locate the film back in the subjects’ home. The film opens with the soundtrack of planes over the narrative that says, ‘I can’t have any peace of mind’ reflecting how these veterans continue to be haunted by their experience of war every single day of their lives. The slow and contemplative style of shooting and editing allows the audience to really take on board the emotions and experiences being shared on camera and, as a result, the character’s stories really resonate as we start to understand how their lives have been totally shaped by their experiences of war. Dennis fights to move away from his status as war veteran but has been left unable to form meaningful attachments. The sense that these men, who would have been called heroes in the media at their time of return, have been to left to just ‘get on with it’. It took David 38 years to receive any counselling and Lamar’s battle to regain a sense of normality has led him down a tough and often lonely road. These three men were each on a battlefield but this film appears to be showing how regaining their lives proved to be the biggest battle of all.

We Went to War explores the act of war outside of a larger global and political framework. This is war narrated by the individuals who experienced it, not simply observed through commentators in the media. The interspersion of new and old footage really drums home the longevity of the emotional scarring these characters received in the war and also points to the poignancy of the subject matter of this film at any one time. In any one point in history in the last one hundred years soldiers have been returning home from one war to another. Currently we are seeing young soldiers returning from Afghanistan and this film makes you ask questions around how their experiences will shape the rest of these soldier’s lives. Soldiers who are lucky enough to survive often have to live with the shock and memories of the horrors of war, as this documentary so poignantly shows.

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If you want to watch a resonant, intelligent, ambitious and beautiful piece of documentary filmmaking then you won’t do much better than We Went to War.

Kerry Flint.

We Went to War is released in UK cinemas Friday 29th March.