“Regeneration” is a war movie released in 1997. It was a British-Canadian production. It was released in America as “Behind the Lines”, but was lost in the wake of “Saving Private Ryan” and "The Thin Red Line". It is based on the acclaimed novel by Pat Barker. Although based on a work of fiction, it features several historical figures and is based on actual events. You can say that a vast majority of war films are anti-war, but few are as serious about sending that message as this film.
The movie begins with an awesome tracking shot over no man’s land to set the mood of “war is Hell”. Don’t be fooled by the opening – this is far from an action picture. Words substitute for bullets and what words. The movie is very lyrical and not just because of the poetry which is effectively blended in. Kudos to Allan Scott for staying true to the novel and to director Gillies MacKinnon for bringing it to the screen.
The multiple story lines coil around the central tale of the warrior-poet Seigfried Sassoon’s stay in a mental hospital. Sassoon (James Wilby) is known as “Mad Jack” to his men because of his suicidal bravery. That bravery has earned him the Military Cross, but his war experience has resulted in disillusionment with the war. He writes a letter that protests the war and indicts the incompetent leadership. The brass handles this criticism by excusing it as the result of shell shock which puts Sassoon in Craiglockhart War Hospital. The hospital specializes in returning shell-shocked soldiers back to the front. However, Sassoon is there to be convinced to withdraw his protest.
Sassoon is psychoanalyzed by Dr. Rivers (Jonathan Pryce) who is experimenting with humane treatment that involves getting the patients to talk out their trauma. This leads to some verbal sparring matches between Sassoon and Price. The dialogue is crackling. It is obvious Rivers needs the sessions almost as much as Sassoon. Rivers is torn by the fact that he is curing patients in order to send them back into a maelstrom. He even develops a stammer and admits that he is “shell-shocked by my own patients”.
Another story line is the relationship that develops between Sassoon and a patient named Wilfred Owen (Stuart Bunce) who shares a love of poetry. Sassoon becomes his mentor and their exchanges are illuminating about the creative process. Sassoon convinces Owen to incorporate the horrors of war into his poetry, as he has. The approach works with Owen describing writing as “like exorcism”.
Meanwhile Rivers is working with a troubled young man named Billy Prior (Jonny Lee Miller). He is mute at first and suffers from nightmares. His main problem is shame over having cracked in combat. These sessions are combative and tension-filled. Prior describes combat as “like sex – exciting and ridiculous”. He desperately wants to return to “the club” to prove himself.
In an important side trip, Rivers visits a fellow psychiatrist named Dr. Yealland who is taking a more conventional approach to shell shock cases. He uses electroshock therapy to get the men back to the front. In a powerful scene, Rivers watches the method in action as Yealland inserts an electric rod in the mouth of a soldier who cannot (or will not) speak. Shockingly (get it?) the procedure works. Pryce does a wonderful job portraying the dismay, but self-doubt of Rivers as he witnesses the curing of the patient. Are his methods, which take longer and perhaps bring greater mental anguish, more humane?
I won’t give away the conclusion of the film, but it does bring satisfactory ends to the three patients’ story lines.
This is an excellent movie. It was nominated for the BAFTA for Best Picture, but is virtually unknown in America. This is a shame because the movie is only lacking in action. It is well written. It is intelligent. It is very well acted (especially by Pryce). The cinematography is interesting. Some of the scenes are done in a surreal style. It sheds a light on the mental wounds of war and treatment of those traumas. If you have seen standard WWI combat films, this movie should be required viewing to take you “behind the lines”. If you insist your war movies be seen and not heard, skip it.
Most admirably, “Regeneration” is historically accurate. Sassoon definitely earned his nickname with suicidal bravery. This included an incident where he made a one man attack on a German trench, ran off sixty Germans with grenades, and then sat down to read a book of poetry! And yet, he gets sent to Craiglockhart for writing “Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration”. In it he wrote “I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest.” (By the way, you could argue that this statement is hard to defend and is borderline insane.) His stay in the hospital and interaction with Rivers is substantially true. The conflicts between the men is dramatized a bit considering that in reality they greatly admired each other (the fact each was gay enhanced their mutual regard).
Rivers methods and philosophy are accurately portrayed. His “talking cure” was controversial because it went against the “stiff upper lip” mentality of the British. He did suffer from guilt feelings. Although the visit to Yealland may have been imagined, Yealland and his methods are historical.
The relationship between Sassoon and Owen is accurate. They did meet in the hospital and their interaction is authentic. I found no evidence for the Prior character. However, his addition to make it a trio of patients, each with different PTSD, is acceptable.
Cracker? Definitely. It is much better than some of the standard war films on the list like "The Alamo"
Rating – 8/10