One of the best movies released this year, REGENERATION tells the stories of three soldiers in a Scottish hospital for shell shock victims during World War I. Marred by a totally gratuitous scene of premarital fornication and another gratuitous scene of upper female nudity, this anti-war movie has incredibly realistic characters dealing in a truly provocative way with the serious moral question of when to fight for your country and how to fight for it.
(BB, Re, L, VV, SS, N, A, D, M) Moderately moral worldview with one important biblical element & redemptive qualities; 7 obscenities, including 3 strong ones & 1 strong profanity; some war explosions & gunfire, shots of dead soldiers lying in & covered by mud but little blood & few, if any, close-ups of gruesome body parts though man at one point holds eye of soldier who was blown apart, & man rendered psychologically mute gets electric-shock therapy on tongue & throat; one totally gratuitous scene of depicted fornication & man twice has hand on woman's fully clothed breast; one totally gratuitous scene of upper female nudity & one scene of partial rear male nudity; alcohol use; smoking; and, British government puts conscientious objector in mental hospital to publicly humiliate his opposition to how government conducts World War I.
War and patriotism have become major themes in Hollywood this year, with the recent release of Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and the upcoming release of other movies about World War II. One of the best movies released this year is an independent movie about World War I called REGENERATION. Based on Pat Barker’s novel about real people, it tells the stories of three British soldiers sent to a Scottish mental hospital for shell shock victims.
In the movie, Jonathan Pryce, the acclaimed English actor from BRAZIL and EVITA, plays the main psychiatrist, Dr. Rivers, who treats the three men. James Wilby plays a war hero named Siegfried Sassoon, a real-life poet who is placed in the hospital after he speaks against the war, which he feels has become a war of aggression rather than the fight for freedom in which he enlisted. The British government put Sassoon in the mental hospital to publicly humiliate his opposition to how his government has conducted the war.
Sassoon befriends one of the other men, a burgeoning poet named Wilfred Owen, played by Stuart Bunce. Owen eventually wrote what many consider the finest poetry to emerge from World War I, including the brilliant, “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” and the not-as-brilliant, “Dulce et Decorum Est.”
Rounding out the main cast is Jonny Lee Miller. Miller portrays Billy Prior, a non-commissioned officer from the lower classes who is briefly rendered speechless and amnesiac by a traumatic experience in the muddy trenches on the battlefield.
As Dr. Rivers debates the merits of the war with Sassoon, Prior eventually recovers his speech and makes an unauthorized visit to town, where he finds a caring girlfriend played by Tanya Allen. After a time, Prior remembers the gruesome incident that drove him speechless. Meanwhile, Dr. Rivers visits another mental ward where he watches the doctor use electric shock treatments to cure another mute soldier. The doctor proclaims “100 percent success” with his method, but Dr. Rivers tells Sassoon that the doctor treated the soldier as if he were repairing a “fighting unit” rather than helping a human being. This gives the two some common human ground to improve their relationship. It also helps cure Dr. Rivers of his own “shell shock” in having to hear about his patients’ nightmarish experiences in the war (though it is clear at the end of the movie that he’s still deeply affected).
REGENERATION is quietly moving and brilliantly understated in the way it portrays the human interaction among its four main characters. This quality is greatly enhanced by the completely natural way in which the actors perform their roles, especially Pryce as the sympathetic and humane Dr. Rivers and Wilby as the earnest and compassionate Sassoon.
REGENERATION is also intellectually and visually stimulating in the way it handles the issues involved in the horror that World War I became. Although it mildly seems to question the very idea of fighting for one’s country and thus could be in danger of degenerating into an immoral pacifism, the movie doesn’t really belabor this point. In fact, the movie’s most positive character, Sassoon, clearly says he supports the idea that some wars are necessary. Sassoon’s position is the biblical position, which was explored in depth by St. Augustine in his analysis of a “just war.” Dr. Rivers’ revelation about the other doctor’s use of shock treatments echoes Sassoon’s feelings about the war. In addition, it adds an impressive character and story development to the movie’s theme that the moral goals of a war don’t justify the means used to achieve those goals. Director Gillies Mackinnon wisely ends his movie by focusing on Sassoon and Owen’s stories when they leave the hospital and by quoting the heart-wrenching lines from Owen’s poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” which provides a twist to the Bible’s story of Abraham and Isaac. Throughout the movie’s war scenes, Mackinnon’s camera sweeps across dead bodies in muddy battlefields. At the end of the movie, his camera rests on the lifeless blue eyes of one dead soldier, and we weep with Rivers as he reads the lines of Owen’s magnificent verses.
Regrettably, REGENERATION has one gratuitous scene each of depicted fornication and upper female nudity. Unlike SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, however, the war violence and foul language in REGENERATION are minimal and neither gratuitous nor excessive. Steven Spielberg is an amazing director. Parts of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN are absolutely breathtaking and contain important moral lessons for Americans, if not for all people. Even so, it is Mackinnon’s REGENERATION that more subtly, beautifully and morally portrays the cost that war’s brutality can visit upon our youth.
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