Everyone is an expert on the First World War

Posted by Helen Tuesday, January 13, 2015 ,

All it takes is a few words and phrases: trenches, barbed wire, mud, water, lost generation. And above all, the Western Front. Because nothing else happened in all those years, not the war in the air, no naval battles, no Eastern Front, no fighting in the Middle East or Africa, nothing. There were the trenches, the mud, the water, the barbed wire .... oh I do apologize, I seem to have become stuck in a groove.

Melanie McDonagh writes about the film of Testament of Youth, about to go on general release in today's Evening Standard and she, too, is an expert, knowing all those words. Despite Vera Brittain, the horror of the war was in the trenches, she tells us and she has a point though, actually, the medical stations behind the lines were full of horror as well. As were the ships that were sunk and the towns that were bombed (oh yes they were in the First World War). Her argument that we should concentrate on the men who were fighting and not just on the women who also served is not unreasonable though that would present as partial a picture as the one she is complaining about.

As it happens, I went to see the new film yesterday at the National Film Theatre and even sat through the less than enthralling discussion afterwards. Baroness Williams really ought to make up her mind about her early life: either she remembers her "beloved aunt Winifred [Holtby]" extremely well though she was five when that talented lady died at the age of 37 in 1935 or she was "only a child" in 1947 (as a matter of fact, she was 17). The other participants, one of the producers, the director and Alicia Vikander were mostly involved in mutual admiration and that is as it should be at film previews.

Ms McDonagh mentions that the film has already had great critical acclaim with the Standard's David Sexton describing it as a "tearful experience" though he was talking about the whole idea of the "lost generation". Think how tearful he would be if he looked at the losses in other countries, such as France, Germany and Russia in numbers and ratio.

I must admit, however that I agree with Ms McDonagh when she is being a self-described "party pooper" (having already been criticized severely on Twitter for not toeing the party line on the film).
Shirley Williams, Vera Brittain’s daughter, loved it, having feared initially that it would sanitise her mother, who “absolutely wasn’t a straightforward romantic heroine”. And indeed Alicia Vikander does convey Vera Brittain’s rather humourless intensity — even if she is, inevitably, luminously beautiful to Vera’s own pale prettiness. Actually, if I might party-poop a bit, what I balked at in the film was its relentless visual appeal — even the front had a period drama look to it — and the sentiments of the time have been given a contemporary spin to appeal to our own sensibility.
It is, indeed, a "beautiful" film with a great deal of time spent on sweeping camera work, especially on glorious scenery. In fact, despite a chorus of approbation and self-approbation about the film not being Hollywood schmaltz (one gathered from something the producer said that the big studios were not interested in the idea) one has to admit that it is rather slushy.

The first act, the director told us, was deliberately slow and gracious with long sweeps of the camera: we had to see the beauty of that last summer before the world collapsed. That I have no objections to but I would have preferred a little more characterization as well.

The young people at the centre are highly intelligent (or so we must assume from them all going to Oxford). Do they never talk about anything at all of any kind of intellectual content? Do the two who intend to be writers, Vera and Ronald, never discuss their favourite authors? Not in this film, they don't.

Vera Brittain does not have to fight particularly hard to get to Oxford - her father gives in rather easily; she does not spend any time wondering or agonizing about her own abilities or ideas - we take all that on trust as she stares intensely into the camera; the four young men who would all be killed in the war, Vera's brother Edward, her fiance Roland and two others are not particularly well defined - we never really learn much about them.

What do they think of the war really? According to her diaries, Vera Brittain was initially greatly in favour and was anxious that her brother should enlist. In the film she talks her father, who is reluctant to let him go, round simply to do young Edward a favour.

The school Edward and his friends attended, Uppingham, was rather hearty (there is some indication of it, what with rugby, a cadet corps and a heavily patriotic pep talk from the headmaster) and the artist, C. R. W. Nevinson who also attended it, though earlier than our young men, described it as a place of "appalling jingoism" where anyone who did not share the prevalent view was "kicked, hounded, caned, flogged, hair-brushed, morning, noon and night". Presumably, this had not changed by the time young Edward Brittain and his friends had become pupils. Where did they fit in and how did that affect their thinking later, as the war progressed, if at all?

The second act is Oxford, the hospital in England, Vera's stint in France, the four young men killed one by one, right to Armistice with Vera being unable to join in the general celebration.

I well recall the 1979 series in which Cheryl Campbell, as the heroine, goes to Somerville and is overwhelmed by the joy of friendship with other girls of her calibre and is almost intoxicated by the pleasure of being able to argue and discuss various new ideas. For that Vera Brittain the decision to abandon all this and become a nurse, "to do something" is a real wrench and sacrifice. For the intense and gloriously beautiful Alicia Vikander it is hardly so: she has no friends, spends no time on discussion, reads rather reluctantly and moons over Roland as well as her brother.

The scenes in the various hospitals, in England and France, seem to be quite bloody enough and the odd shot of the battlefield or of the trenches that recalls films, photographs and paintings adds to the horror of it all. But we continue to know nothing about the way either the young men or Vera Brittain develop beyond the fact (known to all readers of poetry, of Journey's End, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Goodbye to All That and All Quiet on the Western Front) that sensitive young men become hardened or so horror-struck that they are not really capable of human emotion. Or perhaps they are when the girl they are in love with hugs them.

There is no mention that Edward Brittain, according to the Wikipedia entry on his sister, received the Military Cross, which was not awarded simply for sensitivity. In fact, as this note under a photograph in the Imperial War Museum tells us, "he participated in the first day of the Battle of the Somme, during which he was wounded and awarded the MC". But there are other aspects to the story of Edward that have been and still are carefully hidden as this review of a recent biography of Vera Brittain tells us. The film tells us nothing of it. What we get, instead, is numerous close-ups of Ms Vikander, who is beautiful, intense and brilliantly tragic.

Act three ought to be the post-war period but it is so truncated as to be more of an epilogue, which is a pity as the problems of people returning from the front and facing the world they left behind, in itself changed beyond recognition, is also fascinating. Both the book and the series did it justice; the film has scenes of Vera Brittain having a near-break-down and being rescued by Winifred Holtby, of one meeting and a lengthy scene of her returning to  the lake where they had all bathed, undressing, swimming and swearing not to forget the young men.

In a sense that is true: thanks to her four young men, too young, perhaps, to have become personalities of made any impact on the world, have been remembered and for that we must be grateful. With them the whole of that generation is remembered in all the pity and glory that is their due though, perhaps, we should also remember those who fought elsewhere, not on the Western Front and those, the majority, who came back.

Will this film really bring that whole story alive to generations born long after? I am not sure. It is beautiful and it is full of tears but it does not really go beyond that.

Will it make Vera Brittain into an icon, which is what the director thinks she ought to be to young women? No, most definitely not. But why should it? Why should Vera Brittain be an icon? Young women now have to fight other battles and make other decisions.

I had hoped that with all the remembrance there will be more attention devoted to other parts of that catastrophic war but it seems that my hopes were in vain. I had also hoped for more thought and less emotion. That, too, seems to be unlikely.

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