Oct 28, 2011
British Queer auteur Derek Jarman probably never shot a real gun during his relatively short life yet his cinematic masterpiece is assuredly the combat-heavy war epic War Requiem (1989); a BBC-financed film adaptation of English composer Benjamin’s Britten’s 1963 music piece of the same name. Although centered around a musical requiem (Decca Records required that Jarman not include any audible sound in the film aside from Britten’s composition), War Requiem is indubitably first and foremost a visual tour-de-force in a category all of its own. In fact, I would argue that the musical score is the weakest attribute of the film. Unlike most of Jarman’s work, War Requiem neglects to feature hordes of nude gay men galloping along gayly but it does include a most intimate and physically and emotionally visceral look at the tragedy of martial masculinity and the bloody brotherhood of war. Unlike most popular anti-war films (i.e. Apocalypse Now, Platoon), War Requiem does the seemingly impossible by completely shying away from romanticizing and glorifying combat. Sure, the film may feature heavenly firebombings and sensual (but not sexual) soldierly camaraderie but the underlying message of, “war is destructive” permeates throughout the entirety of the bewitching brutality that is War Requiem. I am sure that Jarman – as a sensitive homosexual – saw war as the greatest evil as it kills the most beautiful and valiant of men for – at best – the most trivial and cryptic of reasons. Throughout War Requiem, a beauteous blending of real (stock footage) and fictional theatric deaths of young soldiers are successfully dramatized in a most horrifying manner. Ultimately, War Requiem is not only a tribute to the many British soldiers who needlessly bled blood on the earth’s soil, but, also, a virtual cinematic epitaph for the countless Europeans who died in battle since the dawn of Christianity.
Aside from being a grand achievement in the realm of both art and filmmaking, War Requiem is a strangely spiritual work about the selfless and Christ-like sacrifice so many forgotten soldiers gave for their fatherland. Unlike many anti-war artists, Jarman peculiarly but pleasantly refrained from portraying the deaths of various soldiers as not being in vain, but, instead, as the inevitable "rite of passage" of every generation. In the end, the real victims of War Requiem are those unfortunate individuals who managed to survive the war. In the beginning of the film, the viewer is introduced to a thoroughly melancholic, wheelchair-bound war veteran (played by British veteran actor Laurence Olivier in his last acting role) whose wartime memories still haunt him at his advanced and exceedingly feeble age. While his loyal comrades died in their prime and are remembered for their gallant acts of soldierly nobility, the old war veteran cannot even relieve his bowels without the assistance of a nurse. Had the old man lived during pagan times, his pathetic status as a crippled and elderly survivor would have most likely brought shame upon him as only the most courageous of fighters had the luxury of entering Valhalla upon the end of their mortal earthly existence. The only female charater featured in War Requiem is an angelic nurse (played by Tilda Swinton) who find herself caring for dying men that she acts as a pseudo-mother of sorts for. Although never setting foot on a battlefield, the nurse still encounters the most tragic and soul-shattering results of war. She is undoubtedly a Virgin Mary figure; the soldiers being the many Sons of the European Apocalypse. Like the war veteran, the nurse holds the burden of having to remember the short and painful deaths of those men that are forever lost to fate.
One of the most interesting and symbolic scenes of War Requiem is when a jolly snowball fight between a Brit and a Kraut (played by a youthful Sean Bean) turns into a deadly game all due to a sheer and petty misunderstanding. During the scene, a German soldier appears from the shadowy entrance of a building and jovially throws a snowball at a British gentleman that is playing a piano outside in a most absurd manner. Of course, a fellow Brit (Wilfred Own – the film's lead protagonist – played by Nathaniel Parker) sees his comrade frolicking in the snow with the German but mistakes it for real battle. In the end, the previously friendly German and Englishman lay eternally dead for no reason; no doubt symbolic of war in general. Out of good and keen conscience, Derek Jarman also included a scene in War Requiem featuring a couple greedy and revoltingly effeminate, cigar-smoking Winston Churchill-like capitalists in pancake-make-up. While armies of European patriots slaughtered their fellow blood brothers in the belief that they were protecting their respective nations, the hotshot moneymen of these countries effortlessly relax in a state of constant hedonism as they count their endless downpour of shekels that they undeservedly earned from the noble blood of heroic men that they see as nothing more than ignorant peasants. As I mentioned earlier in the review, War Requiem does not feature a word of dialogue yet the entire story of war and its literal and figurative casualties are told in a most lucid and aesthetically-pleasurable manner. Featuring innocent childhood flashbacks, delightful dirges, and real-life and extremely expressive theatrical deaths, War Requiem is nothing short of being one of the most (if not the most) important filmic war poems ever created.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 12:16 AM
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