Tuesday, 12 December 2017

"Darkest Hour" - a review

I was very pleased to be invited to the UK premiere of "Darkest Hour" last night in London.  The film by Joe Wright, with Gary Oldman as Churchill, broadly follows the circumstances of Churchill's accession to the post of Prime Minister in May 1940, as military reverses in France forced the previous incumbent, Neville Chamberlain, from office.

I have to say - the film is beautifully shot, with a few nice directorial touches, and as such is very convincing.  1940s London appears to have been faithfully reconstructed for our amusement.  Oldman is excellent as Churchill - all grunts and jowls and rheumy eyes - only once, briefly, did the mask seem to slip.  I would predict that he will certainly be a contender for major awards with this performance.

The supporting cast were all excellent - Kristin Scott-Thomas was brilliant as Clemmie, and Stephen Dillane stood out as the cadaverous, scheming Halifax.

I'm not minded to judge the film on its historical accuracy - it is an entertainment, and so plays a little bit loose with the tumultuous events of the summer; overegging the power of the 'peace party' (I would say) and exaggerating Winston's wobble (I've never thought that he lacked faith in his own opinions).

However, aside from that, one passage seemed very out of place to me.  The underground scene, where a desperate Winston takes a trip on the London Underground to 'consult' the Great British public on what his approach should be, or (to be generous) on the rightness of his instincts...  This, to me, was a nonsense...  An a-historical projecting back of our modern populist instincts.  Also the bit where he read out the names of those he spoke to and cited their opinions was all too much like Jeremy Corbyn's ridiculously twee referencing of "Muriel from Barnsley" in the House of Commons.   I may be wrong, but I don't think the passage fitted the tenor of the film, nor did it chime (in my opinion) with the Churchill of historical record.

Anyway - that aside - "Darkest Hour" was a good, largely convincing film.  Oldman deserves every gong going for his performance and overall - i'd give it a B+. 

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Hacksaw Ridge - a hurrah for the forgotten heroes of war

My grandfather - Capt. Stanley Millar - was in the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) during World War Two.  Already a GP before the war, he joined up in 1939 and served right the way through - France 1940, North Africa, Italy, and back into France in 1944.  I've often idly wondered what it must have been like for him; patching up all those injured young men, agonizing over those that he couldn't save.  However, sadly for me - as I suspect for most of us - the role of army medics is one that gets so little air time in the conventional narrative, that it is often hard to imagine what they went through.

That said, I don't imagine for a moment that my grandfather went through anything like the horrors experienced by the subject of the new film "Hacksaw Ridge".  Set mostly during the battle for Okinawa during World War Two, the film tells the true story of Desmond Doss; a young, Virginian, Seventh Day Adventist, who joins up out of patriotic fervour after Pearl Harbor, only to discover that his devout faith forbids him from handling a weapon.

After much wrangling with the military authorities, Doss qualifies as a combat medic with the 77th Infantry Division; thereby squaring his faith with his desire to serve his country.  What followed would have made lesser men wish they had stayed at home.  In real life, Doss served in the Philippines and on Guam, but the film jumps straight to his service in the Battle for Okinawa in the summer of 1945 - specifically to the battle for the Maeda escarpment; known to the Americans as "Hacksaw Ridge".

As one might expect, the battle scenes in the film are not for the faint of heart - they are graphic, visceral and extremely brutal.  Throughout, however, the unarmed Private Doss (played brilliantly by Andrew Garfield) scampers around the battlefield saved those that can be saved.  Most impressively, after a Japanese counter-attack forces the Americans off the ridge, he stays behind - risking certain death if discovered - to tend to the remaining wounded.  In this way, it is estimated that Doss saved some 75 American lives, including that of his commanding officer, before he was himself injured and evacuated.

The real-life Desmond Doss
Hacksaw Ridge is a quite astonishing film, which gives us a rare glimpse into the horrors experienced by the forgotten heroes of the medical corps - men who went into battle with the task of saving lives when all around are trying to take them.  The film ends with the - now rather commonplace - film footage of interviews with the real-life characters.  You will not leave the cinema dry-eyed.

In recognition of his actions, Doss was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1945 - the first conscientious objector to be so honoured.  He died in 2006.
And, what of Stanley?  He came home from the war, but was evidently never the same man he had once been.  He started drinking, was struck off, got divorced and ended up taking his own life in 1973.