Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cinema: "Behind the Lines" (1997)

For those who appreciate "period films" -- historical films -- I saw a good one recently: "Behind the Lines". Based on the novel Regeneration by Pat Barker and true events, the film chronicles the meeting between a psychologist named Dr. William Rivers (Jonathan Pryce) and his patients:
... a mute, amnesiac officer named Billy Prior (Jonny Lee Miller), as well as the emotionally depleted poet Wilfred Owen (Stuart Bunce) and another poet and war hero, Siegfried Sassoon (James Wilby). Unlike the others, Sassoon is not, in fact, suffering from any disorder but is being quietly punished for writing a pamphlet denouncing the war. The army hopes Rivers can find some basis for mental incompetency in Sassoon, but the thoughtful doctor instead attempts to persuade him to add legitimacy to his criticisms of the war by returning to active duty. [-- Tom Keogh]

Wilfred Owen is lauded as the greatest English poet of the First World War. Readers will perhaps recognize the memorable description of a gas attack from his poem "Dulce et Decorum Est", (after the Latin phrase "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" - "how sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country" by Horace):

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning
... and the composition of which is depicted in the film:

Behind the Lines addresses a number of fascinating themes, among them the principled pacifism of the officer and war-hero Siegfried Sassoon and his literary friendship with Wilfred Owen (and why they were persuaded to return to active duty); the predicament of Dr. William Rivers of 'curing' his patients with the intention of returning them to the Front; the experiences of soldiers dealing with trench warfare in World War I; the various psychological techniques employed (from electric shock treatments to the more refined and, at that time, innovative "talking" therapy) to treat them.

Not the most pleasant of subjects for cinema, but well worth watching.


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