‘History is written by the victors’. Say it to yourself a few times. Maybe even say it out loud if you’re not at work or someplace that it might make you look a bit odd. It’s a Winston Churchill quote by all accounts but no-one really knows for sure. If it wasn’t him then it was almost definitely coined by some other politician. The more I say it to myself the more uneasy it makes me feel. It’s got some upfront charm for sure, it’s jingoist, forthright, concise. But it’s got a kick in the guts too. There’s some malice in those words. It saying the truth isn’t absolute and is for sale to the highest bidder, whether that bidder be paying in cash or time or lives or any other currency. It’s saying ‘I win, I own the story’.
So what of the real truths? We as a species are terribly subjective when it comes to our memories. We forget the uncomfortable stuff and speak openly of our victories, our gallant failures and our clear conscience. This means the reality of what occurred and the narrative we pass on is attacked from two sides. A pincer movement with our natural tendencies to sugar-coat on one side and political/financial philandering on the other. It means that what we ‘know’ needs to be confirmed. A historians job is primarily to source first hand content. Anything else is conjecture.
The same is true of these Great War Films. For the vast majority of them there is a narrative style to the storytelling which has evolved over the past 100 years. We know the push and pull of trench warfare, the brave accounts of derring do in the air. What we don’t know we never will and within that vast array of lost truths is the essential detail of what it was really like out there, in deaths domain, 100 years ago.
My film today is the reason for that diatribe. Apologies if I banged on a bit there but my point is, hopefully, valid. ‘Company K’ is a film based on a book I’ve not read. The book is a compendium of over 100 vignettes written by an American Great War soldier (William March) in the early 1930s. He seems to have considered it his way of respecting the memories of his fellow soldiers, whether alive or dead. It also seems to have been his way of coping with the memories, channelling the scattergun snippets of his time in France into a semi coherent series of short stories.
The film has made no attempt to pull these episodes into a narrative structure, rather electing to allow the rough chronology of the incidents to be the order of events. This gives the film a very different feel than anything I’ve seen before (expect maybe The Kentucky Fried Movie). I like it, it’s odd. There’s no plot or central character to pull it all together, the characters themselves are almost incidental with the important thing being the themes of the various stories. Everything is up in the air, all bets are off. The actions of the soldiers in many places are morally questionable.
What we get is a warts and all look at the war from a view point slap bang in the middle of an average company on any average day. The results are hard to watch and not something that we generally see in an average account of war. We see a Captain order the cold blooded murder of a group of German prisoners and the various reactions of his soldiers. We see a cowardly soldier shot by his sergeant for hiding in a shell-hole. We see a German boy soldier captured and then scared with stories of what his captors planned to do to him. We also see the constant searching of dead bodies for anything of value, whether it be a lighter, jewellery or some blood soaked bread.
In the playground wars of my childhood I was always firmly on the ‘Goodies’ side and no-one wanted to be a ‘Baddie’. ‘Baddie’ = German in my head. To suddenly have this spun around and see that the Allies weren’t god sent is something of a shocker. I know it shouldn’t be of course, but it does show that truth is a moving target. We were the Baddies too!
I really liked ‘Company K’. It’s obviously been put together on not much of a budget. The acting isn’t the best and it has a sparse made for TV feel to it but it doesn’t pull its punches. It makes the point that the wars victims weren’t all left to rot on the battlefields, many returned to a form of normality and suffered with the memories for the rest of their lives. It’s more humanitarian than anti-war I suppose. It’s hard to watch due to its honest and direct transfer from the source material but it’s well worth it. I will say that it would probably be better to read the book first and THEN watch the film. I have a feeling the book will be even more harrowing and honest.
Clicky Clicky to pick up either book, movie or, indeed, both.