The locale is a British Army hospital in Craiglockart, Scotland, in 1917. Starring Jonathan Pryce, Jonny Lee Miller, Stuart Bunce and James Wilby. Also known as Regeneration. Based on the 1991 novel by Pat Barker.
It is one thing to listen to John McCutcheon sing "Christmas in the Trenches" every year after the guests go home; another to be Jonathan Pryce, a Psychiatrist at a field hospital in 1917, when first Siegfried Sassoon then Wilfred Owen are admitted, one for shell shock, one for political reasons.
Rupert Brooke was already dead in the Aegean in 1915 (look, his shirt is open and he is not afraid in the 1914 picture prefacing the "Woodberry Collected Poems of.") ". . . Never go," you want to remind him, grabbing that open collar, "Where tangled foliage shrouds the crying bird." ["Town and Country"]
But Pryce has the advantage over us. He has already seen it happen again and again and stutters from the repetition. It is his job, you see, to make them well enough to go back to the Front. He does this in a way we recognize, a way more humane than some of his colleagues who use electric shock to make men, made mute by their experiences, speak again and be cured enough to fight. Stuttering, speechlessness, recitation, kissing, the devouring of live animals -- all these mouth images combine to speak to us of the issues of soldiers in WWI as only the words of writers, songwriters and moviemakers remain to do.
The story is as it should be. There is a cynical, wrong-headed war. Virtually everyone we meet dies in some way, slowly or quickly; making love in a field; gassed; thrown into the air by a shell; naked, on haunches, eating the birds of the forest. There are pieces of beings everywhere, though some seem whole among us. Where enough pieces remain to make movement, even if just the heart, we are shown that there is a hospital. Here, if nowhere else, in the seduction of hypnotism, we are shown all those pieces that were set aside.
Next morning he was dead;
And some Slight Wound lay smiling on the bed.
-- [Sassoon, "Died of Wounds"]
Because of his first name, some patients think Sassoon is a German. [You can supply the humanist observation without my writing it.] This movie, released in our time, 1998, likely went straight to DVD though we should have all sat together in a huge theater to watch it.
The panoply of carnage, death and hopelessness is contextual, familiar, sometimes shocking. The gore is right, however, not made into high drama or voyeuristic sex by Mel Gibson; the naiveté is right, and the idealism; the stopped-up-ness of young English men in the early Twentieth Century seems right. Pryce is one of us, though; we sense it from the first, even as we sense he is as vulnerable as his charges. He only just survives to the last frame.
In the movie, Owen recites:
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb, for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son,
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Off the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
[Owen, "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young"]
In Anthem for Doomed Youth [The Folio society, 2000; second printing], Lyn Macdonald states, "Wilfred Owen wrote nothing out of the ordinary before the War; Sassoon wrote little of importance after it." The movie gets this right, too. We become lost and English with them, caring just a bit, old man, because it is quite too much, really.
We love the tentative, flowering Brooke and yet feel things are still in order when we see him lying in the Sambre Canal, November 4, 1918, age 25 and quite dead. "But we've learned from this," we nod to each other in 2005, comforted that thousands of us blog the right thing in earnest all the time; though too stationary these days to march again.
Besides, didn't we already throw a crook out of the White House once, back in the '70s?
I try not to remember these things now.
Let Dread hark back for one word only: how,
Half-listening to that sentry's moans and jumps,
And the wild chattering of his shivered teeth,
Renewed most horribly whenever crumps
Pummelled the roof and slogged the air beneath, --
Through the dense din, I say, we heard him shout
'I see your lights!' -- But ours had long gone out.
[Owen, "The Sentry"]
And we still have the movies.
And still they come and go: and this is all I know --
That from the gloom I watch an endless picture-show,
Where wild or listless faces flicker on their way,
With glad or grievous hearts I'll never understand
Because Time spins so fast, and they've no time to stay
Beyond the moment's gesture of a lifted hand.
And still, between the shadow and the blinding flame,
The brave despair of men flings onward, ever the same
As in those doom-lit years that wait them, and have been. . .
And life is just the picture dancing on a screen.
["Picture Show", Sassoon, dead at age 80 in 1967]
And until recently, we still had a living witness to nearly all that came between.
Machine-guns rattle toy-like from a hill,
Down in a row the brave tin-soldiers fall:
A sight to be recalled in elder days
When learnedly the future we devote
To yet more boastful visions of despair.
["Recalling War," Robert Graves, dead at age 90, December 7, 1985, the 44th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor]