This was the latest film screened as part of the series WWI Through the Lens at the Hyde Park Picture House. On this occasion the University Students organising the series had arranged an exhibition before the film of WWI military equipment with explanatory notes. This included a soldier’s gas mask, later seen in one of the trench sequences in the film. There was also a short talk from the University Legacy Project. The speaker talked about two Leeds people involved in the WWI conflict. Horace enrolled in the army at 14 years and by 16 years was dead, killed on the Western Front. Mary was more fortunate; she enrolled in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corp, survived the war and benefited from a government-assisted passage to Canada.
The feature film told a story closer to that of Horace. Private Peaceful was adapted from a novel by Michael Morpurgo, who also wrote War Horse. This British feature was a long way from the adaptation of the latter novel by Stephen Spielberg. This film has a ring of authenticity, avoided over sentimentality, and enjoyed a rich roster of characters.
The two key protagonists are brothers, Tommo (George Mackay) and Charlie (Jack O’Connell, recruited again into the British army for the recent ’71). They are bought up in a rural setting in Devon, and when their father dies, by their strong minded mother Hazel (Maxine Peake). Later both enrol in the army and see service on the Western Front. It is here that the drama develops with a court-martial and subsequent execution. This is, of course, the territory of Paths of Glory (1957) and King and Country (1964).
The film opens in 1916 and then a series of flashbacks take us back to 1908. We see the experiences of the family suffering from economic deprivation and harsh landlords. Both personal disappointment and peer pressures lead to their enlistment. The film offers a rather sceptical representation of the patriotic values that were rife in the early stages of the conflict.
The picture of rural exploitation is entirely convincing as are the scenes of front line action that follow. Necessarily the plotting revisits situations and tropes familiar from other films set during this conflict. But the cinematographer, Jerzy Zielinski, does manage a distinctive palette for the scenes of wartime activity. This is partly due to the film including battle scenes set in Flanders from the early months of the war: many films focus on the later stages.
I did have one problem with the film, the plotting of the brothers’ experiences and the flashbacks. However, I checked out the novel and the film was faithfully following that in the book. I do not think it works as effectively on film though: in the book we read the voiced memories of Tommo. In the film these occupy the flashbacks and the literal depiction that one commonly gets in cinema made them seem [to me] rather contrived.
Morpurgo records in an afterword to the book that 290 British soldiers died by firing squad. The student notes for the film recorded that this was out of a total of about 3,000 court-martials. I am somewhat sceptical about the former figure. In Ken Loach’s memorable Days of Hope – 1916: Joining Up (BBC 1976) there is an example of the ‘informal’ style of execution practised by the British military. And the interesting television series The Monocled Mutineer (BBC 1986) recorded [without sufficient details] the violence inflicted on soldiers celebrating through rebellion the Great Soviet Revolution of 1917. There is an interesting sequence in Private Peaceful where the discussion of the ordinary soldiers pre-figures the type of ‘fragging’ that occurred during the US military aggression in Vietnam. But that feeds into an overall tone which is ant-military and anti-high command rather than critically opposing the whole rationale of the conflict. In the same way Charlie, before the war, expresses inchoate class antagonism to the landed gentry, but it does not achieve the coherence of the class and anti-war stance in Days of Hope.
The series is to continue with Oh What a Lovely War (1969 – in May): Paths of Glory (in June): and in July a film titled 120 (2008). The last is a Turkish film set during World War I on the Russian front alongside Armenia and what was then Persia.