Edinburgh, 1917. Sickened by three years of pointless slaughter, writer and war hero Siegfried Sassoon rejects his medals and begins to campaign against the war. He is sent to Craiglockhart, a psychiatric hospital (the Top Brass hope that this will be enough to discredit him) where Dr William Rivers is treating victims of shell shock. Through their relationship the film explores the complexities of sexual and class relationships, and the moral and ethical dilemmas created by the War that was to end all wars and change the world forever. La plus ça change…
UK & Canada 1997, 113 minutes
The opening shot of Regeneration puts us firmly in the picture, drifting slowly over the battlefield, recording the dead and the barely living: this is about the ‘frightfulness’ of the Great War. It’s 1917, and support for the war, literally bogged down in France, is waning. There are more and more ‘wobblers’ and, disturbingly, some are known to be men of honour and courage. Siegfried Sassoon, wounded twice in action, holder of the Military Cross, and still a serving officer, has declared himself a pacifist and is writing anti-war poetry. His superiors send him to Craiglockhart, a psychiatric hospital outside Edinburgh where Dr William Rivers is treating the still disputed phenomenon of shell shock. If he’s mad, he’s neither credible nor culpable.
Through the evolving relationship between the poet and the doctor, and between Sassoon and his fellow- sufferers, the film explores the complex emotions and the moral and ethical dilemmas of the time. Grief and pity drift imperceptibly into an innocent eroticism. Dr Rivers gently draws out his patients, enabling them, sometimes literally, to speak. Healing them, making them fit to fight again, and so sending them to death. They pour out their memories and he takes them in; as they learn to speak, he begins to stammer. The film hasn’t, perhaps, captured all the complexities of Pat Barker’s novel, on which it was based; there’s less room, and some things that the written word simply does better. This shouldn’t detract from it: it’s an accomplished film, using subtle photography to evoke the traumas of war and to manipulate our emotions. The sequence in which Wilfred Owen reads his own poetry is a moving, skilfully built-up series of images.
More disturbing, perhaps, than the well-known muddle and tragedy of the Great War is the feeling that some things haven’t changed. Sufferers from the effects of early nuclear weapons tests, of Agent Orange and of Gulf War Syndrome would recognise the authorities’ denial of shell shock. Gender roles in society have changed immensely, but some issues are still unresolved. Class still largely determines the way our ‘classless’ society treats you. And we’re once again at war, perhaps fighting the wrong war for the wrong reasons, with God on both sides: the wobblers have already appeared. Sobering thoughts, and a sobering film, to follow Remembrance Sunday.
Dr William Rivers: Jonathan Pryce
Siegfried Sassoon: James Wilby
Wilfred Owen: Stuart Bunce
Billy Prior: Jonny Lee Miller
Director: Gillies MacKinnon
Producers: Allan Scott, Peter Simpson
Screenplay: Allan Scott
Photography: Glen MacPherson