Whilst on the face of it I like a bit of poetry, and indeed a large part of my interest in the Great War comes from my school years introduction to the works of Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, when it really comes down to it, for the most part, I lack the wherewithal with the English language to become truly enamoured and engaged by it. In the most part it doesn’t light my fire and while I can enjoy it at face value I don’t LOVE it.
Another thing I don’t have much interest in or love of is Wales. This isn’t because I hold any direct malice for the place, I should imagine it’s very nice and the people are lovely. I’ve just not spent much time there. I’ve driven through it to get to Hollyhead for a ferry ride to Dublin one time when I was a Tour Manager for a band back in the early 90s. I’ve sold a mobility scooter or two there when I ran a disability equipment business. I’ve heard of Charlotte Church. But that, ladies and gentlemen, runs to pretty much the full length of my knowledge of Wales and the Welsh.
My film today, therefore, falls into the category of ‘Film Most Likely to Bore my Tits off’. Let me give you the basics. ‘Hedd Wyn’ is a Welsh language biopic of the Welsh poet Ellis Evans. A young lad about town from solid farming stock who is thrown into the turmoil of conflict against his and his families’ wishes. We get to see some of the processes and procedures of the Eisteddfod poetry competition system, which is riveting (sarcasm), and we get to see plenty of the rural idyll of properly Welsh Wales. The rolling hills, peaty swollen streams and flintwork walls.
The first half of the film is set squarely within the confines of the hills and valleys. We meet Ellis and his older lady friend, his family and some of the wider community. There are long tracts of Welsh dialogue which for me means I have to read the fast paced and detailed subtitles as they pop up and near instantly disappear again. For the most part this dialogue is protracted and adds little to the story. It appears everyone is aware of Ellis’s burning desire to win the ‘Chair’ (First place in the poetry comp). Everyone he talks to, after a brief hello and some pleasantries turns the conversation to how his poem is coming along this year. He responds as if he’s training for a marathon. He placed second last year, he won at Pwllheli, he’s been working on it for three months now and it’s nearly there. BORED.
Now is probably a good time to make it absolutely clear to everyone that this is a VERY dull film. The inconsequential dialogue, the walking through hills whilst quietly ruminating over a line of prose, the ins and outs of the barbic eisteddfod system. It’s all laid out before me and I can barely keep my concentration for 10 minutes before switching to something, anything else. It took me at least a week to get through it in bite-sized chunks, 10 minutes here, 15 there.
My interest piqued for a bit when his lady friend turned against him when it becomes clear he wouldn’t be volunteering to enlist. She went from pleading with him to marry her to hating his guts and loping off with an English soldier at the drop of a hat. When she dies of consumption a few minutes later I made the following comment in my notes. ‘Good’. But that was pretty much the height of the first half of the film.
After being forced to enlist, the second half of the film follows his movements through to the front. There has been some care taken here to keep this piece as accurate as possible. I suppose the records are in the public domain so there would be no forgiving a lack of accuracy. Again it doesn’t make the film particularly interesting though. We have the usual bastard drill instructor busting their chops. He hates the Welsh and calls them all peasants. One can’t even speak English! How ignorant. Yawn. Seen it all before.
Ellis finishes his opus and requests it to be posted to the poetry people. It’s nearly turned away by a young and arrogant Officer who thinks it might be code of some kind but eventually relents and sends it away. After this we get to the brunt of the second half of the film. And finally I have something to hold my interest. A battle scene. He’s at Pilckem Ridge, attacking Langemarck. They go over the top and there follows a good five minutes of a slowly building advance through the mire. It starts quite quiet. The occasional shell, but as they advance we start to hear machine gun fire and the soldiers begin to drop. There’s no gore and, if I’m being picky, it all looks a bit cheap. But at least they’ve made the effort. Eventually Ellis falls, a friend makes to turn and help him but then remembers his orders to advance at all costs and leave the fallen. He turns and presses on.
The ending follows the usual pattern where an injured soldier expires slowly at a triage station. ‘Westfront 1918’ and ‘Passchendaele’ both do this better but the effect is, I hope, at least honest to the realities of his death. And then what I can only assume was meant to be the kick in the guts finale to really get the blood flowing. I shan’t spoil it for you but suffice to say it’s more of a flick on the elbow than a boot up the jacksy.
So what do I make of it overall? It’s boring. The story is true and by all accounts it seems accurately written and portrayed on film, but it just didn’t hold my interest in any way. It won a lot of awards at the Welsh BAFTA’s according to Wikipedia but then it was probably one of about three films made in Wales that year. It was also nominated in the Foreign Language category at the Oscars. I think this is because the UK doesn’t have many foreign language films made. I expect a Cornish language epic about late 18th century folk musicians would also have got the nod had it ever been produced.
Maybe it’s too accurate and biopicy. The elements of his life have been committed to celluloid without too much thought for how this will be of interest to the viewer. I didn’t note any ‘Provinces vs Mother England’ sentiment that you’d find in Irish films based in the era and equally I didn’t feel the conscientious objection was heavily enough focussed on. So what we have is probably an accurate portrayal of his life. The problem though is that it’s so accurate it’s bloody boring. Clicky Clicky if you want to sense the intense boredom for yourself.