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There are very few films glorifying the first world war, called the "Great
War" by those who fought and lived through it. If anything, Hollywood has
avoided the subject and left it to a few European filmmakers, for very
reason. For sheer carnage, nothing has surpassed it. The slaughter of
young men was truly appalling. One can only imagine the reaction today if
50,000 men were dying each month to hold or advance over 100 yards of
desolate mud. I went to school in England where the walls of our classroom
were covered with the photos of pupils who had died in the war. Mostly
17. It was not until much later that I realised why there were so many
unmarried middle aged women around in the 50's, when the writer Dr.
Bentley explained that there was no one for them to marry. An entire
generation of men had been wiped out.
Regeneration is a thoughtful anti-war film where the paradox of war is implied in a Scottish hospital for the treatment of shell shocked officers. The doctor has to get them well so they can be returned to the front lines, where they will more than likely be killed. The script is intelligent and the acting is superb. There are some allegorical scenes which do more to underscore the pigheaded arrogant mentality of the "establishment" which continued a war until quite simply, there was no one left to fight. Even sick men with TB were sent off to fight. Perhaps the saddest aspect of watching this film is when you realize that WWII began 21 years after the first once ended, just long enough for the new generation of soldiers to grow up.
For me, this film was, in a quiet, deeply felt way, much more powerful
overall than "Saving Private Ryan," to which everyone seems to feel they
must compare it (although regardless of one's opinion about their
comparative merits, it is a false analogy in some ways because
"Regeneration" is a WWI movie and addresses very different questions).
While the first 20 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan" are stunning and their
impact incredible, after that it becomes a rather disappointingly
conventional war movie.
"Regeneration" is different. It is not with graphically real blood spilled, but rather with powerfully wrenching emotion and with poetry that this film drives home what war does to the men (and women) caught up in its sweep. The film's use of the poems of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen is stunning, and while perhaps even more of their incredible poetry could have been employed in the film, the ones the filmmaker employs are carefully and perfectly chosen.
This is a war movie because its focus is on the war's destruction of men. But do not go into this film expecting the action of the battlefield to play out on the screen. There are a few scenes from the fields of France, powerful and well-placed in the film. And throughout the movie, you can just hear the dull thudding of shells, as if from a great distance - a striking reminder of how physical distance does not mean emotional distance. But if you are interested in the emotional impact those shells had, in an examination of the struggle to recover from that impact, (through poetry, through love, and through therapy), and in the moral questions raised by war, this is a stunning, deeply moving film you will not soon forget.
The film opens with a stunning tracking shot that reminded me of
Tarkovsky; the technique is used again throughout the film to register
the horror of war--the mud, the dead, and the shattered, flailing
bodies. Most of the film, however, takes place in an insane asylum, far
from the battlefield. Yes, the film is quite "talky," but the talk is
very good, very intelligent, very thought-provoking. The film focuses
on a number of relationships that develop--principally, the respectful
but antagonistic "father-son" relationship between the famous war hero
and poet Siegfried Sassoon (who has been sent to the insane asylum for
penning an anti-war statement) and Dr. Rivers (whose mission is to get
Sassoon to recant and back on the front lines). But other relationships
are almost equally important--those between Dr. Rivers and an angry
soldier named Billy Prior, between Prior and a local "munitionette,"
and between Sassoon and the man who would emerge, under his tutorship,
as perhaps an even greater war poet, Wilfred Owen.
The drama is based on real events, and the performances are quite stunning. Above all, Jonathan Pryce as Dr. Rivers is simply incredible, a man torn between duty and compassion, a doctor on the verge of becoming a patient himself. In a just world, he would have won an Oscar (but hardly anyone, it seems, saw this film on initial release). The handsome James Wilby gives a very fine performance as Sassoon--in fact, I've never seen him in better form. Johnny Lee Miller perfectly embodies the edgy anger, angst, and shame of Billy Prior. And Stuart Bunce brings a remarkably gentle, otherworldly quality to his haunting portrayal of Wilfred Owen. You absolutely believe that this man has a poet's soul; but he finds his voice not by contemplating beauty but by contemplating supreme horror.
There are many scenes from this film I will never forget--particularly, Dr. Rivers' trip to see another doctor cure a patient of being mute by applying electricity directly to his teeth and larynx. This scene is horrifying and, yet, like the rest of the film, restrained, in part because of the way Pryce portrays Rivers' reactions. Another unforgettable scene is the abrupt, shattering ending--but I won't give that away. Suffice it to say that words, especially the words of a great poet, sometimes are more powerful than shocking images.
This is a very intelligent, moving, humane, and important film. What a shame that it has been so overlooked.
Regeneration treats its audience with respect. The dramatic denouement
characters are not simply laid bare for a popcorn-audience to mindlessly
digest. The film unfolds, the scenarios develop, the characters live and
breath the ugly reality of warfare. And this all happens in a natural,
credible manner beautifully shot and paced by the under-rated Gillies
The opening aerial shot of the bloody consequences of battle are every bit the emotional and visceral equal of Spielberg's lauded 20-minute opening sequence in Saving Private Ryan. The rest of the film - in my opinion - surpasses Ryan as a whole in terms of its drama, poetry, anguish and thought.
The performances are outstanding. Jonathan Pryce's portrayal of Rivers falling apart at the seams as he adopts the neuroses and trauma of his patients is astonishing. Johnny Lee Miller is also excellent as the (initially) mute soldier, haunted by the brutality of a trench-attack. James Wilby's Siegfried Sassoon is perhaps the toughest role to play in the film and yet he surpasses any prior (or subsequent) performances with a characterisation that swings from harsh to likeable, strong to weak, right to wrong.
All of the numerous storylines are well constructed and followed to their natural conclusion. There are no false avenues; no bum notes; no waste.
The source material is beautifully adapted for the film (by the rare breed of writer-producer, Allan Scott), losing none of its pace or characterisation. The emotional weight so prominent in Barker's novel are perfectly transferred into the movie. How wonderful for a modern film to have non-stereotypical, imperfect lead characters and lack easy conclusions. How beautifully evoked is the friendship between Sassoon and Owen. There is no sacharine sentiment in this movie; nor artificial shock to induce pity; nor a wasted scene or moment of dialogue. Equally, the period look of the film is stunning. Filmed in Scotland, the vistas are beautifully bleak and wintry. The atmosphere of the First World War is all too frighteningly real.
The music, whilst beautiful, is perfectly restrained. Harking back to the films of the seventies, long moments of silence pervade Regeneration. How did things go so badly wrong in the last twenty years in this respect?
Regeneration achieves the very rare distinction of matching (if not surpassing) the beautiful and moving novel on which it is based. Thoughtful film-goers should treat themselves to this wonderful and intelligent film.
Beginning with a fluid bird-eye-view shot tracking across the
muddy trenches of First World War Northern France, we are introduced to
character of the real-life war-poet Siegfried Sassoon (James Wilby), as he
is shipped home and placed in Craiglockhart, a castle in Scotland being
as a military-run psychiatric hospital for soldiers suffering from
war-neuroses. Sassoon's particular neurosis is little more than a
objection to the direction in which the war has turned in it's latter
(1917), bringing him into conflict with the British military establishment
(who had previously awarded him a Military Cross for bravery), and in
particular psychiatrist Dr William Rivers (the ever reliable Jonathan
Pryce), who is charged with the task of treating the various traumatised
soldiers under his domain.
Taking a rather different approach from the 'war-is-hell' mass-entertainment spectacle of Spielberg's recent 'Saving Private Ryan' and Terence Malick's elliptical 'The Thin Red Line' (both made in 1998), 'Regeneration' evades easy solutions and focuses on the psychological horrors of war in a more low-key and balanced manner. The horrific battle scenes are largely eluded to in flashback, invoked during the well-meaning Pryce's therapy sessions, which utilise the entire arsenal of early Freudian psychotherapy, from dream-analysis to hypnotism as well as more quirky techniques such as putting shell-shocked officers in charge of troops of boy scouts in order to help them regain confidence in their leadership abilities. The central perplexity here is that the soldiers are being cured with the intention of sending them straight back to the front line.
With this and his following film, 'Hideous Kinky', Gillies MacKinnon is emerging as one of the most thought-provoking and technically accomplished British directors working at the moment, adopting an expressionistic cinematic style here which utilises the dark forbidding milieu of the hospital and the surrounding bleak, autumnal countryside to full claustrophobic effect. There are problems here, in the way that the script concentrates on a number of patients, including an angst-ridden Jonny Lee Miller (in his first post-Trainspotting role) who begins the film mute, without fully exploring the relationships between them, but it successfully establishes itself within a convincing historical context whilst challenging the proposition that Britain was united in its conviction to the First World War (of particular relevance today, given our involvement in the bombings of Kosovo and Iraq). Whilst not immediately accessible, it is a film that demands and rewards the closest of attention, and bodes well for future films from the director. Based on the 'Regeneration' trilogy of novels by Pat Barker.
Regeneration is an amazing film, it discusses the unseen wounds left on
soldiers by war. The emotional trauma it causes them and how best we can
help them, if we can at all.
James Wilby gives a remarkable performance as an officer who is sickened by the war that he sees around him. He isn't so much mentally ill as disgusted with war and his contribution in it. Jonny Lee Miller is also amazing in his portrayal of an officer driven mute. When he discovers his voice he is angry and argumentative, but slowly we discover that all of his anger is a shell to protect the hurt that has built up inside of him.
One of the biggest underlying themes in this film is how useless war is, even if it is for the right cause. Mainly because it destroys the human psyche and removes hope.
This is a startling film, and touching and emotional. It cuts to the core of who we all are, as human beings.
This is a vastly underrated Canadian film that deserved more recognition.
Is this a conventional war film? No, not at all.
The opening scenes are done quite like a painting. They are very impressive, and the overhead shots are simply majestic. The story, however, is set in a mental institution, where Doctor Rivers (played with brilliance by Jonathan Pryce) is set on 'curing' the shell-shocked patients. There are three that the movie focuses on in particular: Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Billy Prior, respectively played by James Wilby, Stuart Bunce, and Johnny Lee Miller.
Previous comments have compared this film to Saving Private Ryan, yet there are several marked differences between the two. Ignoring the fact that they are set in two different wars, Saving Private Ryan examines the idea of heroism on the field, while Regeneration takes look on how war effects men psychologically.
Certainly a worthy look, and a fine addition to any film collection.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In 1998 I saw a great war film that was lost in the glare of the nearly
simultaneous American film releases of Terrence Malick's remake of The
Thin Red Line- which is a great film, and Steven Spielberg's cliché and
stereotype-dripping Saving Private Ryan. It was a 1997 Canadian and
British film called Regeneration, directed by Gillies MacKinnon (who
directed The Playboys, and Small Faces), based upon the famed book of
the same title by British novelist Pat Barker. The screenplay was
written by Allan Scott. There were a couple of differences between it
and the other films; the first being that it was set during World War
One, in 1917, while the other two took place during World War Two. The
second was that Regeneration may have been the best film of the trio.
In the years since, I have searched for the film on DVD, but it only
was available in a Region 2 DVD format. Then, I recently found it
online, released by Artisan DVD, for American audiences. The DVD is as
bare bones as one can get- not a single bonus feature. But, even worse
is the fact that it was released under a different, and far less
compelling and more trite, title of Behind The Lines. Worse yet is the
fact that this film is a bowdlerized, dumbed down version of the great
film I remember seeing.
While I cannot pinpoint all the changes from the original film, the overall effect on me was not as great. Oh, it's still a good film, but the greatness has been lost due to the cutting out of some scenes entirely and the trimming of others- to get the nearly two hour original film down to 95 minutes, and re-editing the film into shorter scenes that are interspersed with each other, designed to appeal to a more MTV and video game mindset. Lost in the rush to appeal to typical American idiocy was most of a small romantic subplot, and extended scenes between two of the main characters, the War Poets Siegfried Sassoon (James Wilby) and Wilfred Owen (Stuart Bunce). One has to guess that if the film had too much poetry in it that the McDonald's fed masses would be turned off. Yet, the worst cut, for me, comes about two thirds into the film, where Dr. Rivers (Jonathan Pryce), head of the asylum- Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland, where shell-shocked soldiers go for psychotherapy, goes to London, on R&R, to visit a colleague, Dr. Yealland (John Neville), who is using a very effective form of electroshock therapy to get soldiers suffering from mutism to speak again. All these years later it was that scene, above all others, which stood out in my memory. As a mute soldier is strapped down and about to be shocked for the first time, the camera cuts away from the soldier, and as his agonal screams ripple outward, one only sees the slightly winced reaction of the doctor. It's a brilliant cut and displays the director's command of his craft, for it's a) always better to imagine such horrors, and b) the doctor is the more important character. However, in the Americanized DVD version, all that is lost. We see a standard, even generic, editing job of pain, the doctor wincing, pain, the doctor hanging his head, etc. Thanks, my native land!
The film still has, however bowdlerized, more contemporary relevance than the other two films which drowned it out in 1998, if only because- given the current U.S. treatment of both its Prisoners Of War and veterans of the Iraq War, it shows how little supposedly 'civilized nations' have come in almost a century of warfare. It also touches on smaller aspects of the war, like mail censorship, which are never shown in war films, much less even discussed in many for a regarding warfare. While The film lacks the high tech graphics of its bigger budgeted cousins from 1998, the words of some of the poems, and the reactions of the soldiers say far more than mere 'shocking' images can, for words that are well chose can never inure their readers. Images, even great ones, can do just that through sheer repetition. That said, the best images in the film are not elaborate war scenes, but those designed to show the aftereffects of war on the human body and mind. As example, there is a young soldier who is a quivering wreck, wont to running naked through the woods and mutilating himself, because, we learn, he was thrown by a shell explosion, into the air and when he regained consciousness he was lying face down in the rotted corpse of a German soldier. Hearing what caused him to become so disturbed is more effective than showing his face inside a bloodied, rotting mass of flesh, for, as in the cut scene of Dr. Rivers turning away from the sight of electroshock therapy, what is imagined is always worse than what can be portrayed, for each individual will fill in the horror with their own fears, rather than having a fixed image in their minds.
The cinematography, by Glen MacPherson, is stunningly realistic yet beautiful- especially in the sepia-tinged, color leeched war sequences, but throughout the whole film, as well; and it works well with the simple and understated musical score. It is a stark reminder that, then and now, one need not have all the high tech big budget special effects wizardry of a Steven Spielberg film to leave far more haunting images- perhaps the most effective one left in this bowdlerized film is the opening of a pair of human eyes buried in mud, so that the whites burn with startling intensity up at the viewer. If only the American distributors had not so badly butchered this film, from the title on, the rest of the film would have retained the intensity of those eyes which held me through nearly a decade.
When a film is made of a classic book like this one, it has to satisfy two
sets of viewers - those who have read the book and want to see it
rendered on screen, and those who want to see an entertaining film. It is
seldom easy to do both, but this film makes a valiant attempt. It is true
to the original in spirit, and makes use of Pat Barker's excellent
and one-to-one scenes. Criticisms of it as "talky" are difficult to
justify, because to include lengthy action sequences that play no part in
the book would clearly alter the nature of the story.
My main criticism would be that the Rivers character comes across as lacking in professionalism rather than simply sensitive to his patients. The scene where he quarrels openly with Sassoon in the dining room is not only unlikely but untrue to the book. The Prior sub-plot is also grossly simplified and his affair with the munitionette is made to appear more innocent than it is. This is inevitable in a dramatisation, and the oblique references to the future development of the character are probably a mistake, as they will mean nothing to those who have not read the book.
I particularly like the musical score, which adds to the atmosphere without distracting the viewer.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I came across this film by accident; while wandering through my local video
rental place, I just happened upon it. So I rented it.
This film concerns a famous incident in World War I era Britain: one of the country's greatest military heroes and most celebrated war poets (of which Britain seemed to have quite a lot), while home recuperating from another war wound, suddenly flings his Military Cross into the sea and declares himself in opposition to the war, a war which he feels has gone from a war of defense to a war of aggression. Through the connivance of a friend (another war poet) he is sent to a hospital in Scotland that specializes in treating cases of combat stress ("shell shock," in the parlance of those times). There he meets a budding young talent who is destined to become the greatest of all the war poets. Meanwhile, he has to contend with a doctor who is under orders to get him to change his mind and return to the front. Yes, history fans, this all actually happened!
Insofar as I can judge these things (and I'm not sure how far that is), this movie was very true to what really happened. The historical details are all there, and all correct. Moreover, the treatment of this difficult topic is sensitive and sympathetic. My only complaint, and I'm not sure it even is a complaint, is that the relation ship between Sassoon and Dr. Rivers begins to develop, and then kind of fades into the background, overshadowed by other subplots. Wasn't that supposed to be the central plot? I don't know, maybe it wasn't.
Anyhow, I liked this film. An American movie telling this same story would have had loud, horrifying and incredibly gory flashbacks peppered throughout the entire story. This movie more subtly makes the point by telling the story through the shattered minds and personalities of the men who endured the war. It's things like this that makes me think that our Canadian neighbors are much more sensitive and thoughtful than we are in the States.
By the way, (and I hope this isn't a spoiler) Wilfrid Owen's poem at the end was about as shocking and extraordinary as I think poetry can be.
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