British History Challenge 42-43 | Lions led by Donkeys

It’s time to move on with the history challenge. Now I must warn you, we are about to approach some of the darkest hours of our history. It’s not going to be pleasant and it’s not going to make comfortable viewing… These films are not going to have a happy ending.

#42: My Boy Jack

General Opinion: One that everyone needs to see.

Review: It’s rare that a film completely upsets me and leaves me cold. In fact it’s rare that anything upsets me unless it’s a personal affront. But this film doesn’t let up. It grabbed hold and it kept pulling at my heartstrings until I could take no more. And just when you think it’s stopped then it comes back at you with full force and tugs some more. By the end I was wondering if I would ever be cheerful again.

The film concerns Rudyard Kipling and his son Jack, who struggles to enlist in the First World War due to poor eyesight. Eventually, after a few strings are pulled, he gets into the army. What follows is a shocking indictment of the horrors of the war and the bravery of the men who sacrificed themselves on the battlefields and in the trenches as well as the foolishness of the imperialist elite who were commanding the troops. What makes it all the more harrowing is that you’re aware from very early on in the film of what is about to happen. You’re fully conscious of the fate awaiting Jack and the tragedy that will bring with it. And although this happens two-thirds of the way through, you don’t see it happen until the very end, which makes it all the more painful to watch. Jack goes ‘over the top’ with his men and then it cuts to England where Kipling senior and family receive a telegram stating that Jack is missing in action.  What follows is a lengthy but ultimately futile search by his family to hopefully discover him alive, but of course by this point Jack’s fate is clear and the last act is very painful and difficult to watch.  It’s this part that makes the film. If it didn’t play with our emotions in order to show us the futility and horror of the war it would be a much poorer picture.

A lot of this is down to the cast who put in an extraordinary performance… One of the best I have ever seen in a film. First of all you have David Haig who makes for a remarkable Kipling. He also wrote the film so much credit must go to him for that as well. He actually looks and acts very much like Kipling himself. You do get the sense of the old Victorian imperialist, believing the war is justified and that his son should go and be a hero and fight for his country, no matter what the cost. And then on the opposite side you have Daniel Radcliffe playing young Jack Kipling with superb aplomb. Here he shows off his acting chops and they are quite frankly astonishing in almost every scene, despite whatever that thing is on his lip at certain points. Radcliffe puts on a memorable performance and it’s one I won’t forget in a hurry. Another point is the chemistry which he and Haig seem to have together. It’s a joy to watch and you can truly believe that they are father and son. Between the pair of them you kind of forget they are acting.

Altogether, this is a brilliant, shocking and tragic film that shows the brutality of the First World War in one of the starkest ways possible. It hits the audience where it hurts and it hits with painful accuracy. Ok, Jack’s death scene has been altered from the reality but I feel that the reality may have been far too horrific and maybe a little traumatising for the audience. It’s rare that I commend a film for an inaccuracy but here it was appropriate.

Rating: 10/10- If you haven’t seen it then I suggest you do as it is a fine example of the horror and tragedy of war.

#43: Aces High

General Opinion: Well worth a watch.

Review: I first saw this film several years ago, having never heard of it before then, and found it to be very much a film i enjoyed. Since then I had rather ignored it, for instance leaving it off the original history challenge list in favour of Lawrence of Arabia. In the end though I decided I couldn’t really be bothered sitting through three hours of Peter O’Toole trudging through the desert in a film that really doesn’t have a lot to do with Britain or British history. It has a bit to do with Britain, but not a lot. And now, writing this, I’m glad I replaced it. This is a far superior film in every way: Acting, cinematography and pacing. Whilst critics and film buffs tend to continually wax lyrical about Lawrence of Arabia, this film tends to be forgotten and shoved in a corner somewhere.

And that’s a shame. There aren’t too many films about the First World War, and even less about Britain and British soldiers in WW1. Out of a total of fifty six films which I could find (compare to World war II where I lost count after two thousand,) only four were about British soldiers: This one, My Boy Jack (See above), Oh What a Lovely War which is really just a pastiche and imho not worth the time to include here, and the recent adaptations of Warhorse and Birdsong. Of course, as we saw previously, The Lost Prince also deals with WW1 but it is not solely about the war. You also have the fourth series of Blackadder but that doesn’t qualify for the challenge as it doesn’t tell one continuous story.

Granted, this film is nowhere near as powerful as My Boy Jack but it’s still a great probe into the waste of life and the tragedy of the First World War. It follows Croft, a young fresh faced recruit who joins up with a small squadron in the Royal Flying Corps with only a few hours flying experience and it details his first week with the squadron.

The film starts off quite light, full of hope, adventure and derring doo… But as it progresses it grows darker as the reality of the war sinks in and the squadron are killed off one by one in numerous different ways (One goes mad, another is killed on an observation mission etc.) By the end the film does feel a little cold and bleak, especially when you consider how many of the main characters are left. The ending itself is quite bleak, as with the previous film it doesn’t have a happy ending although in this case its harder to see it coming as it happens so suddenly and so quickly that it’s all the more shocking. Unfortunately this impact is lessened slightly the second time around because you know its coming, although it hardly detracts from the overall feel of the film.

The best thing about this film is the flying scenes. In short they are quite amazing and unlike a modern film (Such as the recent Red Tails) they are real planes flying over the french countryside. It looks dramatic, it looks daring and it looks exciting. They don’t shirk on the details here. Even the close up bits of the pilots look alright, even though it’s a little bit noticeable these days that they aren’t actually flying themselves. Nevertheless, they are still daringly brilliant. There are even a few J.J Abrams style lens flares in there which adds a great sense of realism to proceedings.

I have seen a few reviews that complain that some of the planes ‘don’t look quite right’ but they looked ok to me. At least they weren’t flying harrier jump jets or rornado bombers or something with a bit of glass in, which, given a couple of hundred years, a film like this will do and in very poor CGI.

But in all, this is a good film and another one that is well worth a watch.

Rating: 8/10

I think after watching these two films I profoundly agree with the statement that the troops of the first world war were ‘Lions led by Donkeys.’ What they did took guts, bravery and an enormous amount of courage. Those soldiers stared death in the face, many with fear, many knowing that once they walked out onto that battlefield they wouldn’t be coming back.  I don’t think I could ever do what they did and I’m now all the more thankful that I live in a time of relative peace and stability. I have a deep respect for the soldiers of the First World War. Each and every one of them, no matter how small or large a part they played, was a hero. There is a reason we remember these men on November 11th each year, a damn good one. The First World War was horrific, vile and, like I said at the start of this article, one of the darkest hours in our history. It sickens me to think, however, that the people in charge today can still have such contempt for peace that they can start pointless wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan and send good, heroic soldiers to do what they themselves never would.


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