Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Field Punishment No. 1

Here's a link to a preview of the movie in case you missed it. 

I should be grateful, I suppose, that a movie based on Archibald Baxter's memoir We Will Not Cease has been made at all. I should be even more proud of TV One for showing the movie last night in prime time. Baxter and the other conscientious objectors are portrayed as proud – and more importantly bravemen of high moral principle. The officers were nasty. The trenches were awful. The nurse at the hospital was pretty. It was a sad and terrible war and this was duly emphasised by the incessant and emotive piano soundtrack.

I know it's a truism to claim “the book was way better than the movie”, but in this case the book is WAY better than the movie and WAY different from the movie. The movie ticks all the boxes in the outstanding brutal scenes, most notably when Baxter is tied to the post for “Field Punishment No 1”, and the scene where Briggs is dragged along the boardwalk. These are faithfully rendered and undeniably moving. The problems occur in the dialogue, or rather the lack of dialogue. Maybe I missed something, or found it hard to follow the intricate philosophical arguments for pacifism because they were always being shouted rather than spoken. Here are a few of breathless quotes from the Baxter character:

We are men, not soldiers!”

Setting brother against brother, there's no sane reason!”

I'm not trying to make you shoot anyone I'm trying to stop you!”

There are a few scenes in which Baxter discusses his pacifist philosophy with officers and other soldiers, but I found these shallow and unconvincing. What the movie relies on is the fact that he is tall and handsome and proud and brave. The content of his ideas is not really important, apparently we just need to be convinced of his moral sincerity. All of the arguments, as I recall, were purely moral: the Germans are not animals they are people too, violence is immoral etc etc. There is one very brief scene where the Mark Briggs character is loudly and obnoxiously lecturing some stunned looking soldiers – he gets a one liner something along the lines of “I'll not have anything to do with a war fought by workers for the sake of the rich!”. This is the only scene in the entire movie where politics rears its rude and bolshy head. Baxter looks somewhat bemused. That crazy, stubborn communist! Gosh, how dogmatic and shouty he is!

Scanning over the text of Baxter's We Will Not Cease it is not hard to find examples of intelligent and thoughtful dialogue about pacifism. Several arguments are frequently discussed, mostly in a calm and rational manner. Some are moral arguments, some are religious and some are political. Baxter frequently does make moral arguments, but these are often accompanied by political statements. In an early chapter of the book Baxter even uses a very old fashioned and unsexy “P” word to describe his fellow objectors:

The transport Waitemata lay at one of the wharves and we were pushed up her gangway and down into the clink. It already had ten occupants. Seven we knew: they had been with us at Mt. Cook. Sanderson, a religious objector, had been brought from the Terrace, and two Irishmen, Maguire and Kirwan, from Trentham. This made the number up to fourteen. We represented varying viewpoints. A member of the sect ‘Testimony of Jesus’, a pacifist Catholic, a member of the Labour Party and an Irishman who wouldn't fight for the British because of what had lately happened in Ireland. These were a few examples of the different attitudes from which we came to our stand. One thing was noticeable about the experimental fourteen. Almost without exception we were drawn from the ranks of the proletariat, and the exceptions were known to be opponents of the Government. We were chosen for our obscurity, being thought unlikely ever to make our protests heard either personally or through our relatives. (p. 54 We Will Not Cease)

When Baxter is in the “Mud Camp” with other prisoners undergoing Field Punishment, the discussion is without any doubt political:

I'm here,’ I said, ‘for refusing all orders in the army. I have done so consistently for the last twelve months. I have never taken on anything and have no intention of doing so.’

On what grounds?’ he asked.

On the grounds that war is a bad thing and will destroy the human race. I believe that if enough people in each country stood straight out against war, the Governments would pause and be compelled to settle their disputes by other means. I also believe that the peoples of all nations are naturally peaceful until they are stirred up by the war propaganda of the governing classes. When the workers of all countries win their economic freedom, Governments won't be able to set them on to murdering their fellows.’

Are you a Socialist?’

Too right I am.’ 

There was such a rush to shake my hand that we all went down in a heap.(p.108 ibid)

There are many, many more examples I could give of this sort of dialogue. Why the makers of the movie decided to ignore these examples and create their own, I do not know. I suppose Marxism just isn't very sexy anymore, and it might confuse the audience. It was much easier to create a caricature sidekick version of Mark Briggs and give him crap one liners. Then Baxter could look Noble and Brave and Handsome, without any nasty politics coming out of his mouth. What would the pretty nurse think of him if he started ranting on about the working class! The scriptwriters had to use their common sense I suppose.

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