GCSE English Literature in the UK in the late 80’s/early 90’s was all about Shakespeare, George Orwell and the occasional unknown play written by someone’s Mum about something unimportant and starring a cast of talentless, spotty, future building apprentices and hairdressers. I’d stare out of the window and sigh as we discussed what Shakespeare was banging on about, occasionally peaking my interest with an explanation of things like ‘The beast with two backs’ or ‘luscious quents’. For the most part I passed the time scribbling my name viciously into any desk I was seated at and daydreaming of a time when something, anything, would happen.
Then, as if from nowhere, for about two weeks in 1990 I was sat bolt upright, attention peaked as we worked our way through a book of Great War poetry. My head burst with the florid, horrific imagery of every single word. Lines of soldiers bent double and bare footed trudged through my imagination. Gurgling, guttering soldiers drowned behind my eyes. The mud filled me, my nose, my mouth. I choked and struggled for air as those around me were ripped to pieces in their droves. The written word had never made me feel like this before, I loved each sentence, soaked up its pace, its rhythm and meter. I spent hours digging into the mind of the writer to understand every nuance of meaning.
My film today is, at least partially, the story of Wilfred Owen (one of, if not THE, best known of the Great War poets) and his blossoming skills with prose. It is the story of his meeting Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockart Hospital in Scotland. A hospital where the shellshocked, stammering and mute soldiers of the Great War recuperated and recovered themselves before either re-integration into society or being chucked back to the front for another go at a sweet and fitting death.
The film also has a lot else to offer….maybe too much. It’s worth pointing out at this point that ‘Regeneration’ was originally a book and as with most, if not all, book to film transfers it struggles a bit with the switch of medium. The trick is usually to lose large chucks of the story but what the writers have done here is to opt for keeping as many of the story threads as possible (and there are many) whilst losing some of the depth of understanding of the characters.
The stories on offer here are intertwined in as much as they are all occurring in the same place but other than that they have minimal interaction with each other. We have Sassoon’s pacifist change of heart and subsequent semi-imprisonment at the mental hospital, we have his meeting and growing friendship with Wilfred Owen, there is the story of Dr Rivers, his belief in his techniques and contrasting comparisons to those of his contemporaries. There is also the story of a mutism sufferer and his treatment contrasted with that of another mute being treated in very different circumstances, there’s a love story and a wider look at the zeitgeist of the time and how the military view of mental health issues were fledgling at best. In conclusion, there was a LOT to get through in an hour and 50 minutes.
But somehow they managed to pull it off. This is a good film. It doesn’t feel episodic or disjointed. The location within the confines of the hospital allows the stories to intertwine in the same way that the stories of the lives, ailments and personalities of its patients do. It doesn’t feel overly long or boring. There are some good performances that help keep the viewer involved. Jonathan Price as Dr Rivers puts on a good show of a man maybe questioning his techniques and what he is ultimately achieving. Johnny Lee Miller gurns a little and overacts in his role at the Mutist NCO trying to come to terms with what caused his condition. Out of all the actors he is the only one who comes across as slightly out of his depth, the others having waltzed through their lines with aplomb.
There are some parallels to other Great War Films covering mental health issues. I think the Johnny Lee Miller character is strikingly similar to the lead in ‘King and Country’ (1964), there are asides and flashbacks to his recent past that are visually similar to those portrayed in ‘King and Country’ too. That’s okay though, no complaints from me. ‘King and Country’ is a very good film and I’m sure its influence, its DNA, is spread evenly (though maybe thinly) through most other British Great War films in the years since its release.
It’s depiction of mental health issues is dark and jarring for the most part. In the opening minutes we see a naked, blood smeared man surrounded by a circle of dead animals he’s stolen from the local gamekeepers’ traps. His gurning face contorted with the various agonies he’s internally fighting. There are occasionally more whimsical views of madness. A group of men chasing fish and jumping into a stream for instance. Is this here for comic relief? I hope not but it does slightly cheapen the strong message and seriousness of the subject matter.
There are also scenes depicting the front, trench life and no mans land. These are grim, cloying and hellish. They are used sparingly and work well to juxtapose the spick, bleached cleanliness of the hospital. Mud (and blood) is everywhere, gagging soldiers clear the red mist remains of an unlucky comrade blown to smithers by a direct shell hit, death is at every corner and poking out the trench walls.
This is a good film. Do I like it because of Sassoon and Owen? I suppose so but it’s more than that. It tells an important story and one that is rarely covered in Great War Films. In pretty much all of them we see the immediate impact of the events of the war. Whether it be the concussion of a shell explosion, the traumatic death of a friend at close range or any one of a thousand other incidents. What we also get with ‘Regeneration’ is the aftermath, the scratching at the walls nightmares, the complete loss of self and, eventually, the return to a form of normal. Basically, it’s the war after the war ended. It’s the suffering that continued for decades. Quietly and without mention, the war that was suffered in the heads of the survivors. That was its’ ultimate legacy and something, with the jingoist nature of the centenary events, which we need to remember and hold onto.
You should own this. Go and do a Clicky Clicky and get it.
Next time I roll the Great War Film time machine into the noughties. As I near the end of this journey through the decades I suddenly have a plethora of decent films to choose from. But seeing as I’ve had a good run of it recently I’m going to pick a bit of a stinker (at least as far as I remember) ‘Passchendaele’ (2008). Please Canada, forgive me for what I am about to type.