Review: Their Finest 

This post contains some spoilers for Their Finest (2017)

First of all – I’ve finally finished my dissertation – an exploration of the motivations for writing and publishing a personal narrative of the First World War. It was such fun to write (mostly) and covered narratives from Douglas Haig to Flora Sandes, alongside Robert Graves and Cecil Lewis. However, I am super happy that it’s finished so I can now focus on revision and get back to blogging a little bit more regularly. I wondered briefly how I’m going to stretch out the lifespan of this blog beyond the centenary, as I imagine that interest will probably wane, alas, but that’s a question for another day. As a reward to myself for finally finishing my dissertation, I took my nana out today to go and see the film Their Finest and thought a quick review of the film would be a nice comeback to my blog (it is WWII era, but sssh!)

The film is adapted from a novel by Lisa Evans entitled Their Finest Hour and a Half, and stars Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy, amongst other famous faces. It tells the story of the creation of a full length propaganda film created by the Ministry of Information about two sisters who take a fishing boat to Dunkirk. Gemma Arterton is Catrin, the only female writer in a team otherwise consisting of two men who regard women’s dialogue as ‘slop.’ The film within a film aspect clearly highlights the differences between the order of a film set and the chaos on the streets of London.  There are moments where it is almost a love letter to the cinema of the Second World War, gently self referential but never excluding the audience – rather inviting them inwards to the same world it occupies. It tells of the enrapturing power of film at a time when there were incredibly few other escapes available. 

Gemma Arterton is wonderful as Catrin – she’s not one of those female characters who marches in and completely overturns the status quo in an entirely unbelievable manner – she is eminently believable which makes all the difference. Claflin is equally arresting as her colleague, Tom Buckley, with whom she spars and jokes as they work together to produce a film that will lift the hearts of the public and yet still remain true. Their scenes together are full of both pathos and comedy with only one or two straying into the realm of cheese. A scene wherein they argue beneath a ‘bombers moon’ errs rather on the side of cliche, but in such a lovely film that otherwise manages successfully to paint the blitz without too much saccharine, the odd moment is forgivable – especially when it comes to emotions.

One scene which stood out was one where Catrin is caught away from a shelter as the bombs begin to fall – she huddles beside a shop window for cover until the planes pass. On rising to her feet, amidst the smoke, she sees the shillouettes of bodies and her natural reaction is horror, upset, mounting distress even. On noticing they are mannequins, her upset changes to laughter but then sharply again to horror as she comes face to face with the body of a young woman who she followed out of the tube station moments earlier. Catrin bends at the waist and retches, silhouetted in an archway against the cold light of evening. A comic moment turned abruptly to the real horror which confronted people on a daily basis – not brushed over or ignored, but presented to the audience without rose tinted glasses. There are other, similar moments that carefully place the actual effects of the war to the forefront – when Tom has died, Catrin is not suddenly paralysed by grief, but nor does she jump straight back into her work – the film gives her space to react and to showcase that reaction – mourning, tears and all.

Bill Nighy is magnificent as Ambrose Hilliard, an aging actor who’s best roles appear to be behind him, cajoled into a role with the MoI by his agent. His moments of arrogance are comic, but there is weight behind his frustration when he remarks that the war has taken the cream off the top – leaving everyone with only rancid curds. Though he storms from a restaurant in this scene, it is clear he is remarking on more than the dilapidated food rations available.

It’s a gorgeous film, a colour palette of greys, blues and creams gives it a muted look without ever being washed out or dull – a palette often used in many films set in the Second World War – The Deep Blue Sea and Atonement are two which come to mind. It does work well however, contrasted with the brighter moments when the crew are filming at the seaside.

There are funny moments (in the cinema where I was, laughter was audible on many occasions), touching moments and an ending that I didn’t expect but one which fits better I think, than a traditional happy ending. Overall, for me, it was a perfectly lovely way to spend an hour and a half. I can’t comment on historical accuracy per se, as I know little about the day to day workings of the Ministry of Information, but I certainly recommend, if only for the wonderful performances and the sight of a Second World War film, mostly free of schmaltz.

Journey’s End: The Film

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For my first post in 2017, I want to talk for a moment about the upcoming film adaptation of Journey’s End. I was entirely unaware of it until I came across an article in The Guardian just before Christmas, to be found here. Anyone who follows me on twitter will be aware that the article immediately made me rather angry with its assumption that women do not read books on the First World War, and apparently want nothing to do with it unless it’s all nicely digestible as a play (?!). Really, it’s not as though women have written books on the First World War or anything of the sort..

Aside from my anger at the needless comment regarding gender and apparent interest or lack thereof in the First World War, I was somewhat nervous (and remain nervous) about this adaptation. I adore Sherriff’s play and have seen it as a piece of live theatre – harrowing, intimate and deeply affecting, it has stayed with me for a long time.

For me, one of the aspects of the play that I consider to be important is Stanhope’s youth. As far as I can recall (as I don’t have the text with me at present) he is in his early twenties – Sam Claflin however is in his thirties. That takes away an aspect of his character that adds to the way in which the audience view how Stanhope gradually breaks down and the coping mechanism he elects to use. His youth adds another sort of melancholy; one of his older subordinates looks upon him as a son more than a commanding officer, and having Claflin play Stanhope removes this element of the relationship between Stanhope and those he commands.

Secondly, I am just generally hesitant about the film as a whole. The poster feels a little cloying, the tagline ‘innocence lost. courage found’ is..well. Probably not what I would have gone for – it feels a little overwrought and not necessarily relevant. The depiction of Stanhope’s gradual breakdown and his relationship with Raleigh are what I feel anchor the play so firmly – if either of these are handled badly, one wonders what the film will end up becoming.

Still, one cannot judge a film that has not yet been released on the strength of the cast and one poster! I’d love to hear what everyone else thinks of this upcoming adaptation – optimistic? wary? not-all-that-fussed?

the glorious dead – tim atkinson

I was lucky enough to have chance to interview an author who’s work I am extremely interested in. Tim’s book details the story of several characters from the First World War who stayed behind in France once the war was over to find and bury the bodies that were left by the fighting. Below is the interview we conducted – via email mind!

– where did you get the idea from – what inspired you?

Two things got the ball rolling. I was doing some research into a relative who served in Flanders during WW1 and discovered that his battalion had been destroyed in early 1918. The soldier was transferred to a unit I’d never heard of called an ‘entrenching battalion’ and I was inspired to find out more. Some time later a chance conversation with a friend intrigued me. He said a relative of his had suffered from the effects if gas – in spite of not serving abroad until 1919. It was news to me that soldiers were still being sent abroad in 1919. And I was intrigued to know what he was doing – and how he’d been gassed.

Can you tell me a little more about the book?

It’s a war book (obviously) but a war book with a difference. First, the action only starts once the guns stop firing. And rather than battles, attacks, it’s about the aftermath – the enormous clearing up operation that involved finding and burying the thousands of bodies abandoned on the road to victory. But it’s also about the individual aftermath for the men involved – all of whom, to some extent, can only cope with the end of the war by remaining abroad doing the Empire’s dirty work.

What was your research process before you began writing – or did you research as you went along?

Both, really. I spent a lot of time reading just about all the books on the subject that I could find. I also spent some time trawling the archives of the Imperial War Museum as well as going to Flanders, staying in Ypres and walking the streets and the battlefields described in the book.

Are there any particular stories you came across during researching that stuck with you more than any other?

The exhumation of the battlefield cemetery at Wild Wood was especially poignant (you can read an extract describing it on the Unbound website).

Is there a character of yours whose journey moves you more than any other, or even a character who you favour a little more over the others?

The main protagonist, I suppose, has to take centre stage and it’s his journey from battle-scarred veteran suffering what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder to a man if not at peace with himself, then certainly at peace with his past that is the book’s central theme. But that personal journey mirrors the wider social journey as a country devastated by war slowly comes to terms with what has happens and starts to think about the future.

The cemeteries and monuments kept by the CWGC are always beautifully maintained; is there one that you feel you have a connection to?

There are some tiny battlefield cemeteries on the Somme that are especially memorable – places like New Munich trench cemetery near Beaumont-Hamel where around 100 men are buried, usually from the same regiment and often close to where they fell. But my favourite is probably Ypres ramparts cemetery because of it’s location on the eastern ramparts of that devastated city as well as its stunning beauty, especially in autumn.

There are many heart-felt epitaphs on some of the gravestones out in France, are there any that you found particularly moving, or that you chose to feature in the book?

The original title of the book was ‘Known unto God’ which appears, of course, on thousands of headstones. In terms of the book, it’s appropriate both to the work of the exhumation company about whom the book is written and to the central secret that keeps the main character, Jack Patterson, in Flanders finding bodies, digging graves and avoiding something – or someone – back in England.

You’ve chosen to use Unbound to publish your work – why have you decided to go down this route?

They were the first people to see the MS and they liked what they read and were immediately encouraging. And I like what they’re doing. I’ve been published ‘traditionally’ a number of times by a number of different publishers and haven’t ever felt in control of what was happening. I like the fact that artistically I’m wholly responsible – which mean I’ve got to persuade the public that what I’m doing is worth reading! That’s hard work but I think there’s a decent chance of getting better books this way. I was am Unbound customer long before I become one of their potential authors and I’m delighted to have supported so many books that I really wanted to read, but which might not otherwise have been written.

If you are interested in donating to fund the publication of Tim’s book or want to find out more, check out his Unbound page here!

remembrance of women

the souls of the faithful are in the hands of God.

I am used to seeing men on war memorials, on the cenotaphs that stand in the centre of towns, the neat white headstones of the CWGC, memorial tablets that hang in churches as they commemorate the sons and fathers of the parish. I often seek them out in new places that I visit, wondering about the men whose names grace the walls of a church, where their service led them and who it was they left behind.

What I do not often see however, is the names of women on these memorials, be they from the First World War, or the Second. They are curiously absent from places where one might assume they be. After all, women served as nurses close to the front lines, they were employed as munitions workers and some died. I am aware of women who have gravestones which are maintained by the CWGC, but I have never been able to see any of them myself.

Perhaps it has changed now, but I also found them absent in the curriculum in which I was taught. The war, to me at the age of twelve, was simply men and mud and trenches (as I am sure I have mentioned before) – there was no mention of the women and the part they played in the war effort. Of course, this was different when it came to being taught about the Second World War – perhaps because the home front was more of a component.

I was therefore extremely pleased to find a war memorial with women on it. The memorial stands in Ripley square, a small town about ten minutes out of Harrogate. It’s a stone obelisk on which are two panels, one for the First World War, and one for the second. At the top are the names of those who lost their lives, and below this are the names of all from the town who served. It is a wealth of information, as after each name comes the regiment in which they served, as well as their theatre of war – another thing which I do not often see.

The names of the three women are on the side of the memorial which is dedicated to the Second World War – Pvt. Amy Barrow (ATS, Home Service), Army Sister Maude Doris Mankin (QAINS, West Africa) and Sgt. Dorothy Clark (ATS).

Perhaps sometime I’ll research these ladies and their service and I’ll most certainly keep an eye out for any women within the spaces for remembrance of the First World War.

(I am currently reading: The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War – Peter Englund)

Both Sides of the Wire

I expected there to be a lot more programmes on during the immediate Somme period but, unless I’ve just missed the majority of them, there haven’t been as many as I expected. Perhaps a good thing that there has not been a deluge – I’m not really sure. I feel like the commemorations have sort of finished up being the big three moments – 1914, 1916 and then 1918. It will be interesting to see what 2017 brings, but that is another thing entirely!

This programme, Both Sides of the Wire (BBC Two, Mondays) states that it will tell the story of the Somme from both the British and the German perspective. I’m not sure how many episodes this series is scheduled to run, but this first one looked at July 1st, 1916.

I thought the introduction to this show was really good – clear and informative and not sensationalised in the way that I find some shows tend to get. For many who already know about the Somme, there was not much new to be found in this segment. Many of the details throughout were good, including the use of statistics and primary sources (I love a good primary source, especially when its quoted!). I also liked the use of actual footage of the soldiers waiting for the command on the 1st July – poignant and striking – but not overused. It covered quite a bit of ground and I liked the way it was separated into the different areas of the front with a focus on a certain battalion, rather than trying to cover it all in one fell swoop in not a lot of detail.

One of the niggles I had with it was that I felt the programme was a little more skewed towards the Allied experience of the Somme. I don’t know how much of this was just down to me, and if there was actually an even split between the two, or if the programme did focus a bit more on the Allied side of things – but that was just the feeling that I came away with. Furthermore, I would have liked a bit more on the Allied treatment of captured Germans – the programme did touch on this briefly, but did not linger.

Overall, it was a fair enough programme, in my opinion. I learnt some new stiff, which is always good, and I’ll most likely tune into the second episode next Monday, but probably on iPlayer.

(now BBC, just give me a programme on the Eastern Front, eh?)

Other Fronts, Other Spaces

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June has been a quiet month for blogging, mostly because I’ve been busy, so I thought I’d best get a post in! My internship has formally finished, but I’ve still been returning to Leeds Museums to help out with the Somme commemorations! This post is a review of a study day which I attended just before my placement came to an end.

Towards the end of my placement year with Leeds Museums and Galleries, I attended a study day at the Wellcome Trust in London entitled Other Fronts, Other Spaces: First World War Nursing. Nursing is not an aspect of the First World War that I find myself focusing on. Though I have seen some exhibitions and read some memoirs, I would not consider myself to know any more than the average on the topic, but the day remedied that and certainly had my interest when it came to certain papers.

There were three panels and two separate talks about different projects related to nursing and I could natter on all day about every single paper, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll just be making note of the papers that I personally enjoyed the most.

Prof. Alison Fell’s paper, Crossing Borders: National variations in images of First World War nurses was a talk which I thoroughly enjoyed – looking at the differing images of nurses used in propaganda and recruitment materials. It was especially interesting noting how many depictions fit a certain number of archetypes.

Sue Hawkins paper, The Indian Princess and the Lady Racer: WWI Stories from the VAD Archive was fascinating and definitely inspired me to look more into the stories of the nurses and others who worked alongside them. It was also interesting to note the different demographics of nurses and the jobs that they had (such as x-ray and lab assistants, something which had never previously crossed my mind). The work to digitise the Red Cross archive was wonderful to hear about. It’s fantastic that so many of these resources are now online and so easily accessible.

Finally, Alice Kelly’s piece, Commemorative Gestures: Nurses Writing Death in the Great War was a paper which looked at the idea of the war as the turning point in the attitude of the people towards death. Something which struck me particularly was the reference to the Victorian’s view of death and dying – that there was a way to ‘die well’ and to die well was to die quietly – it became idealised in a sense. Mourning was ostentatious and literature was a consolidation of death. The war however, was – as Alice Kelly termed it – an “unexpected assault on the Victorian idea of death.” In the 1912 Red Cross manual for nurses, they were primarily concerned with the logistics of death, but they were sadly not formally prepared for the scale of mass death which they would encounter. There was a renegotiation of death and dying throughout the First World War, public forms of remembrance came to the forefront and there was a desire to personalise the anonymous death, something that I, personally, see so keenly in the work of the CWGC.

Other Fronts, Other Spaces really was a wonderful study day and gave me much food to thought. Many thanks to all those who gave papers at the day, and to Leeds Museums for letting me tag along!

 

a post about nothing in particular

catsFirst of all, today is the 100th Anniversay of the Battle of Jutland -a battle I knew very little about until recently. It is something which I hope to do a post on at a later date, so please excuse my posting ‘schedule’ in not being quite as timely as one might wish at the present moment.

May has been a very, very quiet month for blogging for me, and I’m not entirely sure why – other things (namely real life) rather got in the way of regular posting and then I seemed to be without very much to say. I do have a couple of posts coming up; one a review of a conference I attended at the Wellcome Trust in London and another.. well, that’s a surprise!

I’m also pleased to say that ~my exhibition (still feels a little odd saying that) is currently on display at a local primary school! There is a longer blog post about it here, if that takes your fancy, though I did blather on about it rather a lot.

Further to this, for my final year at University, I’ll be taking a module entitled Europe in an Age of Total Warfare, led by Dr. Holger Afflerbach – so  that’s something else I’ll doubtless be posting about when I have the time. It covers the First World War from outbreak to post-war feeling and then from there onto the outbreak of the Second World War until its close and the resulting representation in post-war culture. I’m also planning on completing my dissertation on something related to WW1 – an idea I’ve been vaguely floating around is one on the Unknown Soldier and the general post-war attitudes to death, grieving and remembrance and how they differ to ours today; or if they differ at all. It might not be feasible to do an entire 12,000 word dissertation on that, but there are plenty of other aspects of WW1 to go at.

I am also currently reading a book by Juliet Nicolson, The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Britain in the Shadow of the Great War. This book looks at post-war Britain and it’s collective progress through the stages of grief along with several other chapters up until the silence of 11th November 1920. It is incredibly interesting to read about the silence that permeated the country in the days and weeks after the armistice. There is also an incredibly detailed chapter on facial reconstruction.

Within one of the first chapters, there is the testimony of Maude Onions (someone who I first came across whilst studying a-level literature..). As a young woman during the war, she was a signaller with the WAAC. Maude was the lady who typed out the fateful message of ‘Hostilities will cease at 11am. November 11th. Troops will stand fast at the line reached at that hour which will be reported to Army HQ. Defensive precautions will be maintained. There will be no intercourse of any description with the enemy.’ This message was sent at 8am and Maude recalls that ‘3 hours later, [I] took an involuntary glance at the clock’ and she saw that the moment the world had been waiting for had finally happened, yet all there was around her was silence, a world too exhausted to rejoice. Maude looked upon it as though ‘France had just heaved a vast sigh of relief.’

The Great Silence really is a fascinating book and I am only halfway through it myself (though my opinion may change!) It can be purchased here.