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DVD Review

Regeneration (aka Behind The Lines)
Dan Schneider


In 1998 I saw a great war film that was lost in the glare of the nearly simultaneous American film releases of Terrence Malick’s remake of The Thin Red Line- which is a great film, and Steven Spielberg’s cliché and stereotype-dripping Saving Private Ryan. It was a 1997 Canadian and British film called Regeneration, directed by Gillies MacKinnon (who directed The Playboys, and Small Faces), based upon the famed book of the same title by British novelist Pat Barker.

The screenplay was written by Allan Scott. There were a couple of differences between it and the other films; the first being that it was set during World War One, in 1917, while the other two took place during World War Two. The second was that Regeneration may have been the best film of the trio. In the years since, I have searched for the film on DVD, but it only was available in a Region 2 DVD format. Then, I recently found it online, released by Artisan DVD, for American audiences. The DVD is as bare bones as one can get- not a single bonus feature. But, even worse is the fact that it was released under a different, and far less compelling and more trite, title of Behind The Lines. Worse yet is the fact that this film is a bowdlerized, dumbed down version of the great film I remember seeing.

While I cannot pinpoint all the changes from the original film, the overall effect on me was not as great. Oh, it’s still a good- even arguably a very good film, but the greatness has been lost due to the cutting out of some scenes entirely and the trimming of others- to get the nearly two hour original film down to 95 minutes, and re-editing the film into shorter scenes that are interspersed with each other, designed to appeal to a more MTV and video game mindset. Lost in the rush to appeal to typical American idiocy was most of a small romantic subplot, and extended scenes between the two of the main characters, the War Poets Siegfried Sassoon (James Wilby) and Wilfred Owen (Stuart Bunce). One has to guess that if the film had too much poetry in it that the McDonald’s fed masses would be turned off. Yet, the worst cut, for me, comes about two thirds into the film, where Dr. Rivers (Jonathan Pryce), head of the asylum- Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland, where shell-shocked soldiers go for psychotherapy, goes to London, on R&R, to visit a colleague, Dr. Yealland (John Neville), who is using a very effective form of electroshock therapy to get soldiers suffering from mutism to speak again. All these years later it was that scene, above all others, which stood out in my memory. As a mute soldier is strapped down and about to be shocked for the first time, the camera cuts away from the soldier, and as his agonal screams ripple outward, one only sees the slightly winced reaction of the doctor. It’s a brilliant cut and displays the director’s command of his craft, for it’s a) always better to imagine such horrors, and b) the doctor is the more important character. However, in the Americanized DVD version, all that is lost. We see a standard, even generic, editing job of pain, the doctor wincing, pain, the doctor hanging his head, etc. Thanks, my native land!

That said, if the editing reduces the film from a 95 or better, on a scale of 1 to 100, it can only reduce it so much, to the mid to high 80s; or, still a good, solid film, somewhere between The Thin Red Line and The Big Red One. It opens with a great long tracking shock above the muddy and diseased trenches where brown is all that is seen until a few soldiers move. It reminds of some of the great silent epics, in scope, but also of some of the sorts of tracking shots used in the big budget Biblical films of the 1950s, or the spectacles of Andrei Tarkovsky or Akira Kurosawa. But, we soon realize that these wartime scenes are usually flashbacks, as the film follows the three above named lead characters, and a fourth, a mute Lieutenant named Billy Prior (Jonny Lee Miller). Dr. Pryce’s objective is to get Prior speaking again, convince Sassoon to retract his published political manifesto against the war- where he threw his Military Cross for bravery into a river, and help Owen recover from general war fatigue. Sassoon also faces a possible court martial and treason charges. He has been sent to the asylum to shame and discredit him, but it is his choice, one that his friend, the writer Robert Graves (Dougray Scott) urged him to choose.

Much of the film is a philosophic battle of wits between Dr. Rivers and Sassoon and Prior. With Sassoon, the dialectic is on a higher depersonalized plane, whereas with Prior, who soon recovers his voice, and finds that he went mute after a shell explosion blew up a friend of his, leaving only a blue eyeball for him to pick up, the exchanges are more personal, with Prior taunting the doctor over his own stuttering- the way that officers react to shell shock vs. the enlisted men’s mutism. The doctor’s extreme empathy for others has led him to be shell-shocked by proxy. Eventually, Owen is sent back to the front lines, where he dies a few days before war’s end, Sassoon returns too, and shows valor, while Prior is assigned to ‘home service;’ which means he won’t be going back to the war. This feels like a slight to him, but he will survive the war. Along the way, he takes up with a pretty redheaded Scots munitionette named Sarah (Tanya Allen), and Pryce ends up reading a poem of Owens’ to close the film.

While extremely well acted, the truncated version really suffers from the cutting of the Owen character- who starts off writing banal lyrics and tritely mouthing banalities like, ‘Writing is like exorcism,’ yet whose encouragement from the published poet allowed Owen to later trump Sassoon’s minor verse. Yes, his famous poem, Dulce Et Decorum Est, is partly read, but since other scenes have been lost, there is less resonance with the doctor’s reaction to his words at the end of the film. About the only scene of Owens that is left, which has any resonance, is when he tells Sassoon, ‘Sometimes when you’re alone in the trenches, I mean, at night you get the feeling of something ancient. As if the trenches had always been there. You know one trench we held, it had skulls in the side. And do you know it was actually easier to believe they were men from Marlborough’s army than to think they’d been alive two years ago. It’s as if all other wars had somehow distilled themselves into this war, and that makes it something you almost can’t challenge. It’s like a very deep voice saying, ‘Run along, little man. Be thankful if you survive.’ And as lovely as Ms. Allen is to look at- especially in her one topless scene, her role in the film has been utterly genericized, due to cuts. Looking online, I found information suggesting that not only have there been cuts, but a wholesale reordering of scenes throughout the film. This not only lessens the affected scenes, but cuts down on the building dramatic power of the film as a whole, so that certain actions and conversations make little or no sense, for their chronological logic has been dashed.

The film still has, however bowdlerized, more contemporary relevance than the other two films which drowned it out in 1998, if only because- given the current U.S. treatment of both its Prisoners Of War and veterans of the Iraq War, it shows how little supposedly ‘civilized nations’ have come in almost a century of warfare. It also touches on smaller aspects of the war, like mail censorship, which are never shown in war films, much less even discussed in many for a regarding warfare. While the film lacks the high tech graphics of its bigger budgeted cousins from 1998, the words of some of the poems, and the reactions of the soldiers say far more than mere ‘shocking’ images can, for words that are well chose can never inure their readers. Images, even great ones, can do just that through sheer repetition. That said, the best images in the film are not elaborate war scenes, but those designed to show the aftereffects of war on the human body and mind. As example, there is a young soldier who is a quivering wreck, wont to running naked through the woods and mutilating himself, because, we learn, he was thrown by a shell explosion, into the air and when he regained consciousness he was lying face down in the rotted corpse of a German soldier. Hearing what caused him to become so disturbed is more effective than showing his face inside a bloodied, rotting mass of flesh, for, as in the cut scene of Dr. Rivers turning away from the sight of electroshock therapy, what is imagined is always worse than what can be portrayed, for each individual will fill in the horror with their own fears, rather than having a fixed image in their minds.

The cinematography, by Glen MacPherson, is stunningly realistic yet beautiful- especially in the sepia-tinged, color leeched war sequences, but throughout the whole film, as well; and it works well with the simple and understated musical score. It is a stark reminder that, then and now, one need not have all the high tech big budget special effects wizardry of a Steven Spielberg film to leave far more haunting images- perhaps the most effective one left in this bowdlerized film is the opening of a pair of human eyes buried in mud, so that the whites burn with startling intensity up at the viewer. If only the American distributors had not so badly butchered this film, from the title on, the rest of the film would have retained the intensity of those eyes which held me through nearly a decade.

© Dan Schneider Jan 2007
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