“Private Peaceful” is a young adult novel that is set in WWI. The movie based on it was directed by Pat O’Connor and released in 2012. The movie jumps in at the end with Private Peaceful having been found guilty in a court-martial trial and awaiting execution. It then flashes back to England in 1908. The Peaceful brothers are both hot for a classmate and kindred soul named Molly, but of course her father does not want his daughter going with any lower class lads (although Molly’s family is not exactly of the nobility). Time passes and the Great War breaks out. Charlie (Jack O’Connell) gets Molly (Alexandra Roach) pregnant which results in her exile to the Peaceful home. Tommo (George McKay) volunteers for the war due to societal pressure and boredom. Charlie follows soon after, although he believes the war only benefits the rich.
Tommo and Charlie are in the same unit, which would not be unusual in the British Army. A series of vignettes dip our toes in the horrors of the war. The biggest horror is the cinematic hardass sergeant who for no good reason is out to get the Peaceful brothers. Perhaps he is offended by their pussy last name. I’ll tell you how big a horse’s ass he is. He forbids the men to smoke – during the daytime! The movie builds to a trench attack where the Peaceful brothers give Sergeant Hanley the offense he has been looking for. Queue the trial and a twist ending. The Great War sucks greatly.
“Private Peaceful” is a nice little movie, but it’s nothing special. It is not surprising that it is based on a young adult novel and it shows. It does not challenge the intellect. It is not graphic. It is simplistic and shallow. None of the war scenes last very long. It frustratingly opens doors and then does not walk through. For instance, they plan a trench raid to get prisoners. Oh goody, some action. Nope, the raid gets cancelled! What little combat there is is small scale with random soldiers being mowed down. That’s about as anti-war as the movie gets. It does not hammer the nature of the war. The trench is too pristine. Charlie spouts a bit of pacifism, but does not really pursue it. The movie is more anti-military with the court-martial being the punctuation. There is little character development other than the love trio. The sergeant is a stock villain. There is no logic to his hatred, other than Charlie is a bit lippy. One strength is the acting. The cast is fine with O’Connell taking honors. He has a lot of charisma.
This is the rare case of my liking the book over the movie. As my readers know, I feel that a movie should be able to improve on its source. A screenwriter has the advantage to tweak the novel. Although the movie “Private Peaceful” is not bad, it does not improve on the novel. Michael Morpurgo is a good young adult writer. He also wrote “War Horse”. Surprisingly, the book’s biggest strength is its combat scenes. There is an excellent trench battle, trench raid, and a gas attack. Morpurgo writes panic well. The novel describes the rats, lice, and rain. The movie would have been better if it could have recreated the combat scenes. I have to assume the budget did not allow it. Just as the time constraints did not allow the movie to go into depth on the minor characters. Reading the novel gives you a better feel for the villains. In the book, Grandma Wolf comes to live with them and makes their lives Hell. The Colonel shoots their dog. In the book, the reason the Peaceful boys enlist is because he threatens to evict their family. By the way, here is a good drinking game for you young adults. Take a drink every time the song “Oranges and Lemons” is mentioned in the book.
Other than the depth, the movie does cover the main scenes and themes of the book well. The movie does not make any major changes. For instance, Tommo’s chaste “romance” with Anna is virtually the same. The biggest flaw in the movie is the botched handling of the twist ending. It left me feeling duped. (As per my modus operandi, I watched the movie before reading the book.)
As a post script, I have something to say about one of the basic themes of the book/movie. They indict the British military for its inhumane courts-martial policy. The British Army had a huge number of offenses that called for the death penalty. In 2006, the British government took the extraordinary step of pardoning the 306 Tommies that were executed for cowardice, desertion, or sleeping on duty. Sleeping on duty! My God! When I imagine being in any war, one of my worst fears would be falling asleep on duty. Lack of sleep was not an excuse for falling asleep? Are you kidding me? No wonder the U.S. Army gave out so much amphetamines in WWII. Solved that problem, right? But I digress. The point I wanted to make is that in the book/movie we are obviously meant to feel that the court-martial and sentence are a travesty. However, Charlie does disobey a direct order to get out of the crater and resume the attack. The other soldiers obey the order, although reluctantly. And yes, it is a suicidal order given by a villainous sergeant, but Tommo did not have life-threatening injuries. You could argue that Charlie chose his brother over his mates. That is understandable and perhaps justifiable, but his actions certainly fit a punishable offense. Should circumstances have been considered by the court-martial? Of course. But if the army was executing men for falling asleep on guard duty, wasn’t Charlie’s offense worse?
GRADES = Movie B- / Book B