‘ICOULD not look on Death, which being known, / Men led me to him, blindfold and alone,’’ wrote Rudyard Kipling. The words are inscribed on a steel plaque on a monument five miles from Ypres in the village of Poperinge. It’s dedicated to dead soldiers from the so-called Great War executed by their own side for refusing to fight, or who fled the horrors of the front.
As the war approaches its 100th anniversary, the words and the monument — a pole, the height of a man, the kind deserters and the mutinous were tied to and shot by firing squad — suggest the change in our attitude towards that terrible conflict. Increasingly we choose to stress the inhumanity of the war rather than focus on the triumph of the victors.
And while more than 3300 Australian soldiers were court-martialled for desertion — estimates suggest 10 times as many were ‘‘ adrift’’ at any given time — only 120 Australians were sentenced to death. Despite pressure from the British high command, the Australian government refused to impose the death penalty on its volunteer soldiers. It would take 80 years, though, for the British and New Zealand governments to pardon their young soldiers.
This is the background to Rachel Ward’s fine ABC telemovie An Accidental Soldier, which too, like that wooden French pole that once supported the twining vines of hops, is a memorial that emphasises the pity of war rather than its nobility.
My grandfather was in the trenches at Ypres and landed twice at Gallipoli and he never spoke of heroism or great deeds. It was never about nationalism for him but only about grief, and we still need to be reminded of that. Our
Rachel Ward’s World War I telemovie is a testament to the pity of that terrible conflict
wars are not only about self-sacrifice and mateship but also fear, folly and terrible frailty. And we have to understand them as a reality and not merely as national myth or a stereotyped piece of news reporting.
Ward’s story is about a man snatched from the ordinary and forced to define himself in ways he could never have imagined. The fine, tightly structured, almost minimalist script from Blake Ayshford ( Love My Way, The Straits) was adapted from the novel Silent Parts by Australian writer John Charalambous for producers Kylie du Fresne of Goldpost Pictures and Sue Taylor from Taylor Media. The novel was described by reviewer Peter Pierce as one of the most poignant and unusual reflections on war and remembrance. And Ayshford, in taking the colonial part of the novel, which interweaves events from 1968 and fading memories of the war with events from 1918, also provides a hushed story of an unlikely love. Adaptations into film are difficult to manage. But Ayshford and his sympath- etic director have created something quite singular and filmically exciting.
Harry Lambert (Dan Spielman), a shy 35-year-old baker working in a rural Australian town, is compelled by feelings of hostility and shame from within his own community to enlist in the spring of 1918 as Germany seems poised to win the war. The word ‘‘ shirker’’ haunts him and he joins the service corps as a baker working behind the lines on the Western Front in France. The bakers are callously thrown on to the front line — a long slowmotion sequence recalled by Lambert in shocked flashbacks — and he stumbles out of the trenches in flight from the horror.
He finds himself in an unfamiliar countryside that is swarming with gendarmes looking for deserters and is soon on the run, compassionately rescued by a stoic farm wife, Colombe Jacotot (Marie Bunel). Her husband has deserted her, her only son is another casualty of the war, and she works in a local munitions factory assembly line. A love slowly develops between the shy baker who has never had a sweetheart and the older woman convinced all joy and beauty has left her life. It’s a love that is neither foreseen nor imagined, full of passion, sadness and regret, that eventually becomes an unlikely commitment.
There is a luminous simplicity in Ward’s treatment of the relationship as it quietly develops, shot largely in intercutting close-ups; it’s an artful simplicity, really, that hides the art. Under her impressive direction, both actors are able to convey thinking on camera, communicate the effort or excitement of it, and make it exhilarating to watch. This is not an easy thing to do and you almost sense Ward just off camera observing, nodding along to the moments as they emerge, encouraging and empathising. Few words are needed to convey the baker’s courteous modesty and the farm wife’s exquisite fastidiousness. At times Ward seems to channel the tone of early Truffaut, sweet and acerbic, a kind of insinuating lyricism that pulls you into the unfolding story.
Film critic John Simon once remarked that one of the prerequisites for a well-made film is texture, ‘‘ a certain density in the relations among the characters, a certain solidity of setting, a topography you can feel in the soles of your feet’’. Ward nails this: her small town hangs together; you can sense how people move around, get from place to place; and Colombe’s house is lived-in, full of memories.
Ward gets the texture of war-torn France right, which can’t have been an easy thing as An Accidental Soldier was in fact shot about an hour outside Perth. Production designer Clayton Jauncey discovered the numerous vineyards and valleys that were populated by early settlers determined to create an environment that reminded them of Europe.
A garden in Union Road, Carmel (‘‘garden of God’’ in Hebrew), with its antique rose garden, pear trees and duck pond, provides the picturesque backdrop to the drama. And Jauncey, after constructing the French farmhouse, barn and outbuildings, has re-created the look and feel of exteriors and interiors of the place and time. It’s a film that exudes atmosphere without ever appearing smug about it, so tight is Ward’s control over texture.
Spielman is convincing and affecting, managing to shrink himself into the disaffected, slightly dazed but intelligent everyman, somehow so vulnerable that’s he’s a convincing sexual innocent at the age of 35. The scene where Colombe discovers this is delightful, touching and oddly amusing as she delicately,
Dan Spielman and Marie Bunel in An Accidental Soldier