Testament of Youth, AKA Why I can’t Watch Historical Films

Oh my God, she’s just found her brother and saved him from a squalid and messy death and this is one of the emotional high points of the movie… but Goddamn it, Etaples is supposed to be a seaside town and it’s taking me right out of the moment!

Testament of Youth is the movie of Vera Brittain’s First World War memoir, and it was recommended to me as a tear-jerker by a friend. Since I’m atrocious for crying at movies (and TV), and I knew the outline of Brittain’s experiences during the war, I watched it expecting to be in bits by the end. And then I… wasn’t.

The film itself was well-shot and well-acted – with stars like Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington and Taron Egerton it was never going to be anything other than a high-quality production (and I, mostly knowing Egerton from the Kingsman movies, was surprised at just how broad of an acting range he possesses). But… they kept making really obvious historical blunders. And it kept yanking me out of the moment because I was spotting them and then shaking my head. And none of them would have taken too much effort to fix.

Slightly related to this is a structural problem I had with the film – there isn’t any real sense of time passing. Spoiler alert, all four of Brittain’s close male friends (including her brother and her fiancée) were killed during the fighting, but at various different points. Her fiancée Roland Leighton was killed just before Christmas 1915, but it was sixteen months before the death of Geoffrey Thurlow at Monchy-le-Preux, in April 1917. The death of Victor Richardson followed closely after in June 1917, due to wounds sustained at the Battle of Arras, but it was another thirteen until the death of her brother Edward at the Battle of the Piave in June 1918. The problem I have is that… at no point do we ever get a sense that so much time has passed. I do appreciate that the war was over four years long and that’s not easy to show in a 2 hour movie (and smartarse YouTube critics love to pick up on the use of newspaper headline montages or captions to show time jumps)… but the war was over four years long. Even the most ignorant among your audience should know that. I wanted a sense of how much time had passed. Instead, I got the sense that Brittain had sort-of wandered through the war in a daze, entirely ignorant of major events like the Somme or Third Ypres and only realising how bad war was when her friends were killed. The film did its protagonist, and its audience, a disservice by not signposting where she was, and when. It means we don’t see her belief in pacifism grow with any coherence.

Well, that’s a lie actually. They did do it once. I’ll elaborate on that below…

And my point about the film doing its protagonist a disservice, and not earning her belief in pacifism, I’ll come back to below as well.

So, the historical blunders. And a quick disclaimer – although I’ve seen the film, I’ve not read Testament of Youth. My knowledge of Vera Brittain comes from an essay I read about her a few months ago, and Wikipedia (I had no idea her daughter was Shirley Williams until recently, for instance). There may be many departures from history that I just miss as a result. But I think it’s worse that I can spot so many glaring errors with such a sketchy knowledge of the source material.

The first one I almost laughed out loud at, which would have been very inappropriate, was Plug Street Wood. A little background: Leighton and Brittain exchanged poetry during the war, which Leighton wrote from the frontline. The most famous was Violets from Plug Street Wood, and violets are often left at Leighton’s grave in France in memory of this. Plug Street Wood was the name given by British soldiers to Ploegsteert Wood in Belgium, on the southern flank of the Ypres salient. In the film it’s depicted as a quiet, verdant green forest with a gently rolling hill up which Leighton and his men stroll after Leighton plucks a violet from beside the head of a dead soldier.

Very different from the muddy collection of shell-blasted stumps it would have actually been by the time Leighton arrived.

Ploegsteert Wood had been the scene of heavy fighting during the First and Second Battles of Ypres, and had been heavily shelled by the Germans during both battles – and by British artillery as German troops advanced. Added to which, it’s in the Ypres Salient – that famously low-lying, flat piece of basically reclaimed swampland. No gently rolling hills anywhere in sight… unless they had Germans on top on them. In which case Roland Leighton wouldn’t have strolled leisurely up them. I mean, I often have problems with lazy misrepresentations of the First World War, but expecting me to believe there was a luscious green forest in the middle of the Western Front… that one takes some beating.

Instead of finding this moment moving and poignant, I’m raising my eyebrows and shaking my head.

It’s such a weird choice as well, putting the dead soldier in a piece of tranquil woodland. I suppose they were trying to highlight the incongruity of it, and the contrasts between life and death, peace and war… but I can’t help thinking that the incongruity, and the contrast Leighton was describing in his poem, wasn’t the dead soldier in the otherwise tranquil and untouched forest, it was the violets that still grew even amidst and surrounded by the devastated hellscape that the Ypres Salient had been reduced to. Surely it would have been better to show this? Give the audience a better picture of what Leighton was seeing at the front, the horrors he was encountering, and his efforts to try to cling to hope amidst all this? It would put his outburst and subsequent contrition towards Vera on the beach into some more context. More than just an odd, and obvious blunder, I really feel like this was a missed opportunity to better explore Leighton’s character, and the effect that war had on him.

The death of Victor Richardson is actually presented reasonably accurately – he was sent home after being shot in the head and losing the sight in both eyes, and died from a cerebral abscess a few weeks later. Brittain spent his last few days with him (his faculties hadn’t been impaired by his injury) and those close to Richardson felt she intended to marry him and devote her life to caring for him – the film deals with this by having her propose, and Richardson reject her, not wanting to tie her down. Without having read Testament of Youth I can’t comment on the accuracy of this.

Researching this blog post, I did learn that Geoffrey Thurlow had actually already died at this point, and it was his death and Richardson’s wounds that convinced Brittain to return to the UK. Not knowing this at the time, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment at all, although I was frustrated by the lack of any signposting of the time jump between Leighton’s death and Richardson’s (a simple newspaper with a visible date would have done it). It would have annoyed me had I known it at the time, and it’s not a change I agree with. I’ve stated above that I don’t feel that the film earns Brittain’s pacifist convictions; the twin blows of Thurlow’s and Richardson’s deaths so close together were an important bit of context in her changing views.

And then we get Etaples…

This is the one occasion on which we get any sense of time in the movie – it captions Brittain’s arrival here as Etaples, August 1917. And it’s raining! And muddy! Because First World War! In this completely land-locked version of Etaples, which completely misses any of the points about the place.

Having not read Testament of Youth, I don’t know if Brittain was ever stationed at Etaples, or when, and the movie is clearly a very unreliable source. But, as a bit of context, Etaples was a seaside town, through which the majority of British troops arrived in France, and at which a notoriously brutal training camp was established. Given some of the incredibly stupid orders they were sometimes asked to follow, it’s one of the striking features of the war that the British Army was the only one of the major Allied combatants not to see widespread mutiny, but the closest it came was at Etaples in September 1917 – although it was really more an act of mass protest against the vicious regime at the camp than an outright refusal to obey orders. Had Brittain been stationed there at the time, she surely would have been aware of the incident, and would certainly have commented upon it… and again, this could have been used to show us her growing pacifist convictions. But, nope, the movie instead moves her brother’s wounds forward a year in time (Edward was wounded, and cared for by Vera, but in 1916), and as much as I really wanted to care, and as well as Vikander and Egerton acted their scenes here and had a convincing familial on-screen rapport… damn it, where’s the bloody sea!

I couldn’t engage with the moment properly because I knew it was wrong.

‘The Germans are getting closer,’ another nurse whispers to Brittain at one point, as they hear artillery fire. Er, not to Etaples they aren’t. That’s about as far away from the Germans as any British troops in France ever got.

In the film, Edward’s departure from Etaples for Italy on his convalescence is depicted as the last moment he and Vera see each other (in fact he returned home on leave in January 1918). And he’s still, more or less, the same cheery Edward we’ve known since the start of the film. This is odd, because at their last meeting Vera described him in Testament of Youth as being ‘An unfamiliar, frightening Edward, who never smiled or spoke except about trivial things … Silent, uncommunicative, thrust in upon himself.’ What a great chance to show us the effect the horrors of war had had upon Brittain’s closest friend and confidant, and how this affected her growing convictions about pacifism, and…

Also, her future husband, George Catlin, was not Roland Leighton’s commanding officer, had actually never met him, and wouldn’t have been anywhere near him at his death in 1915. Catlin volunteered for service at the start of the war, but was rejected on medical grounds until 1918, when the Army was desperate. I don’t really see what giving him and Brittain that early connection achieved, unless they were compositing another man to whom Brittain spoke about Leighton’s death into Catlin. There’s a bizarre strand running through this film, where at times they think that I’ve read Testament of Youth, and so will know the significance of some characters, but they usually assume that I don’t know the first thing about either Vera Brittain or Testament of Youth and juke events around however suits them best.

Does any of this matter? Does it matter if Ploegsteert Wood looks completely wrong, or if Geoffrey Thurlow actually died a year earlier than the film implies, or if Etaples is actually a seaside town and a major training camp, not a grotty little Field Hospital on a muddy hill?

In the sense that a general audience member with not much knowledge of the First World War probably wouldn’t notice, no, it doesn’t. If when you think First World War, you think ‘Trenches, machine guns, mud, pointless slaughter, Lions led by Donkeys,’ and that’s about all you know, I doubt any of these errors would bother you. But that doesn’t mean that writers and filmmakers don’t have to show things accurately. On the contrary, I’d argue that that gives them more of a responsibility to be accurate, to show things as accurately as they reasonably can.

Now, there are times where you make small changes to make things easier for your audience in historical films. Band of Brothers, for instance, had people remove their helmets in situations where they would never have done so to allow the audience to identify characters. But moving an entire town inland, because First World War = Mud, is not ok. You can’t just move entire places around – find another way to show me that the First World War was muddy. You can’t move Geoffrey Thurlow’s death by a year because it’s more convenient (and then barely allude to it, and then expect me to care about a character who got five minutes of screen time). Brittain’s friends and brother lived, and loved, and died horrible, squalid, messy, terrifying deaths. If you’re going to try to represent that, then you have a responsibility to their memory to show that as accurately as possible. Yes, you can make changes, but they should complement the story and make it easier for the audience to access the world and understand the characters, not change what happened to real people because it fits your plot and your audience’s preconceived ideas better.

Especially when the average watcher might not have much general knowledge about what they’re seeing. That isn’t an opportunity to make a ton of changes because it’s more convenient for you as a writer, or to play up to pre-conceived ideas they’ll have if those don’t represent the experiences of the people who actually lived.

That’s a responsibility to tell their stories as truthfully and accurately as you can.

Ultimately, it’s disappointing for an anti-war film to be so casual about the past.

Of course, Testament of Youth is not alone in this. Braveheart, as John Farrell once memorably put it, couldn’t have been any less historically accurate if they’d added a plasticine dog and called it William Wallace and Gromit (although all that was about making a political point – English Bad). Roman Emperor Commodus has been killed on-screen by a general twice (Russell Crowe was actually the second; Steven Boyd did it first in 1964 in The Fall of the Roman Empire, a film where Marcus Aurelius wants his top general to succeed him instead of his son, who then schemes against the general… Gladiator is actually pretty derivative) when he was actually strangled in his bath by his wrestling partner after fifteen years of rule. And… I don’t like it.

The past matters. People are proud, or ashamed, or inspired, or revolted, by the actions of their ancestors, and the stories of heroism and depravity they encounter. I’m descended from (and named for) a Seventeenth Century English general who fought the Monarchy in the Civil War and helped pave the way for democracy – at the crucial Battle of Naseby he fought in the front rank of his troops even after being seriously wounded by a musket. I never met him, given his views on religion and nickname of ‘The Christian Centurion,’ I doubt we’d get on, but you can bet that if someone made a TV movie or film about Naseby depicting him as a cowardly dandy who ran away in order to make Cromwell look more heroic, you can bet I’d be bloody angry. Our past is where we came from. Without understanding that, how can we know where we’re going?

My ancestor didn’t go to Ireland, incidentally. He turned down the offer of commanding that expedition. But if he had, and if he had committed the same atrocities as Cromwell’s men, then I would be ashamed of him. Thankfully, I don’t come from attempted genocide. But, if I had, I’d want it represented accurately in any fictional account. Warts and all.

Show us the past as it was, not as it is convenient for writers and filmmakers. Show the lives of the people in it as they would have actually lived, not as you think we think they would have lived. And don’t show us mud if there wasn’t any bloody mud! I mean, if Brittain did comment on incessant rain and mud at Etaples during her time there, that makes it worse. There really wasn’t a seaside town with a few fields nearby you could have filmed in?

 

Now, I did also mention that I don’t think the film earnt Brittain’s pacifist convictions, and I’ll briefly touch on that here. Basically, although in later life she was a noted pacifist and feminist, Vera Brittain was rabidly pro-war in 1914 and 15, to the point of basically harassing one of her friends into joining up (I’d need to re-read the essay on her to be sure, but I think it was Geoffrey Thurlow). In the film, we don’t get this sense of her. Yes, she persuades her father to allow Edward to join the army at 18 instead of waiting for his 19th birthday (at the time the minimum age for recruitment without parental consent – Edward turned 19 on 30th November 1914, but Vera, like many at the start of the war, felt it would be all over by then), but this is the only time we ever see her advocating for anyone to join the army, and it’s portrayed more as being for Edward’s benefit – he’d be ashamed to miss out. Then, lots of Bad Things happen, her friends die and she’s Very Sad, she treats wounded Germans and sees that they’re Human Too, and hey presto! Instant pacifist!

Because we never really see her pro-war attitude in 1914 and 15, we don’t get the sense of her views developing and changing over time, as she loses each of her close male friends one by one, starting with her fiancée and ending with her brother. We don’t see the change in Edward, so we don’t see how this affects Vera. Because Thurlow’s and Richardson’s deaths don’t occur close together, and in fact Thurlow is barely in the film and his death isn’t even really mentioned, we don’t see the effect this twin shock has on her. Leighton’s outburst on the beach certainly shocks Vera, but because she’s never really come across as pro-war until now, we don’t see her start to re-evaluate her position in the light of war’s effect on the man she loves.

When she gives her speech to the crowd demanding reparations (in what I’m guessing is 1919 – again would have been nice to know, and again, a newspaper headline about the Versailles negotiations would have solved the problem easily), her experience of treating wounded Germans seems to have been her main motivation for changing her beliefs, but she was only with them for a small fraction of the movie. Leighton, Richardson, and Edward were developed characters that we got to know and care about. Now, fair enough, maybe Brittain in Testament of Youth does focus more on her experience of treating wounded soldiers. Having not read it, I wouldn’t know. But, if that’s what she focussed on, that’s what the film should have focussed on. That’s where the real change in her beliefs happened; that’s what we need to see.

Instead, the film doesn’t show her starting point, and glosses over some of her most important formative experiences, so that the effect of her final conversion to pacifism is rather diluted. I mean, we get why War is Bad by the end of it – but it does Vera Brittain a disservice. Instead of clinging pig-headedly to her beliefs as the evidence in the form of her dead friends piled up around her, she thought about them, questioned herself, and changed her mind. She was a thinking, self-aware person, and in an age of internet filter bubbles telling us what we want to hear, that’s a powerful story that deserved telling.

Storytelling 101: characters need arcs, or the audience won’t care. We didn’t see the start of Brittain’s arc, or some important stops on her journey along it. This means that the final payoff isn’t really as impactful as it could have been, and the end of her arc isn’t earnt by the writing.

 

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