Film Review: War Requiem
War Requiem (Britain 1988)
Written and Directed by Derek Jarman, Music by Benjamin Britten, Poetry by Wilfred Owen, Production Design by Lucy Morahan, Video editor/montage by John Maybury.
Cast: Nathaniel Parker (Wilfred Owen), Tilda Swinton (Nurse), Laurence Olivier (The Old Soldier),
Patricia Hayes (Mother), Sean Bean (The German Soldier), Owen Teale (The Unknown Soldier)
Derek Jarman’s War Requiem is a cinematic representation of Benjamin Britten’s oratorio War Requiem, op 66, a non-liturgical setting of the Requiem Mass which had been written for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962. The war poetry of Wilfred Owen inspired Britten’s music, and Britten included nine of Owen’s poems in the oratorio. Jarman had read the 1988 John Stallworthy biography of Wilfred Owen, and referred to his film as ‘the three queers War Requiem’ (Jarman, Britten, Owen). The film includes a video montage by John Maybury of newsreel of the horrors of twentieth century capitalist wars culminating in the mushroom cloud of the Atomic bomb explosion.
The film is structured as the memories of Olivier’s character, the Old Soldier in a wheelchair, attended by his nurse, Tilda Swinton. Olivier recites Owen’s Strange Meeting in the film’s prologue: ‘It seemed that out of battle I escaped, Down some profound dull tunnel.’ Immediately the emotion of Britten’s music, Owen’s words and Olivier looking straight into the camera in close-up, all anguish and aged memories of the horror of the First World War and the prospect of death are overpowering. This would be Olivier’s last film, he died in July 1989.
Owen was killed in the last week of the First World War aged 25. He wrote ‘My subject is the war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.’ Jarman portrays Owen and soldiers’ lives sacrificed for wealthy bankers, the bourgeoisie or capitalist class and this is compared to the Abraham and Isaac biblical story, a ram caught in barb wire, Abraham slits Owen’s throat. Owen’s poem The Parable of the Old Man and the Young: ‘Caught in a thicket by its horns, A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead But the old man would not so, but slew his son, And half the seed of Europe, one by one’ follows the wording of Genesis 22:1-19 very closely.
Owen believed in an Anglican Evangelical Christianity, and from 1911-13 had an unpaid post as lay assistant and pupil in Dunsden near Reading. During this period his sympathies for ‘the underdog’ became apparent; he helped the old and the sick, the illiterate, and the poor rural workers enduring an agricultural depression. But his dislike of the narrow evangelicalism practised at Dunsden would prepare Owen for his later indignation at the support which the Churches gave to the First World War.
Jarman employs Christian iconography; the Unknown Soldier with a barb wire crown akin to Christ’s crown of thorns at the crucifixion. Jarman wrote ‘the immaculate side of Christ’s life, nothing to do with the Church, the person who actually went out and brought in all those who were considered unclean in Jewish society, a very fantastic story and a very fantastic achievement, whether or not he is the Son of God.’ In the Owen biography, Stallworthy had written ‘Christ said ‘Love one another’ and ‘Love your enemies’ despite the exhortations of Church and State. Owen perceives that ‘Pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism.’ Owen wrote in At a Calvary near the Ancre: ‘bawl allegiance to the state, But they who love the greater love lay down their life: they do not hate’ which echoes John 15:13: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’
A five minutes scene of interpretative acting to Britten’s music by Tilda Swinton dressed in a Neo-Classical look à la Canova, plaiting her hair by the mausoleum of Tomb of the Unknown Soldier runs the gamut of emotions from laughter to anger, anguish, despair, and reflection. Swinton was Jarman’s muse: ‘Woman as sister, nurse, and grieving’, making eight films with Jarman.
The final scene of Jarman’s film and the climax of Britten’s oratorio sees the German Soldier with a wreath of red poppies coming to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which is now a tableau after Pierro della Francesca 15th century Renaissance painting The Resurrection with Owen Teale in the central position of the tableau. Aldous Huxley called it ‘the greatest painting in the world.’ The Mother (Hayes) and Sister (Swinton) arrive with a basket of white poppies in a very moving and heart-bursting scene. The use of white poppies was deliberate; Swinton said ‘white poppies, a living white flower’, and on the AIDS crisis of the time; ‘We had many friends being diagnosed, becoming ill and dying. We felt like we were in a war of our own.’ The white poppy established by the Peace Pledge Union in 1934 disassociates the memory of war from the militaristic aspects of Remembrance Day. In 1986 there was controversy over the white poppy when it was given approval by the Bishop of Salisbury which caused Thatcher to express her ‘deep distaste’ for the white poppy in the House of Commons.
Jarman was the son of a RAF Lancaster bomber pilot in the Second World War, and his father’s despair and depression is attributed to the high number of fatalities that bomber crews experienced and the killing of civilians in German cities. Swinton herself is from a military family; daughter of a Major-General, and sister to a Lieutenant-Colonel. Tilda joined the Communist Party of Great Britain while at Cambridge in the 1980s but is now a member of the Trotskyist Scottish Socialist Party.
Jarman’s War Requiem followed his politically angry The Last of England which re-interprets Ford Madox Brown’s pre-Raphaelite painting, and tells of the death of England ravaged by internal decay, capitalist restructuring, greed, AIDS, homophobia and repressive morality. Village Voice described it as ‘wrenchingly beautiful, the film is one of the few commanding works of personal cinema in the late 80’s, a call to open our eyes to a world violated by greed and repression, to see what irrevocable damage has been wrought on city, countryside and soul, how our skies, our bodies, have turned poisonous.’ Jarman himself said ‘I was brought up by a generation who fought the war and established the welfare state, and I perceived that everything my parents had fought for was being taken away.’ Following War Requiem Jarman would make the political Edward II, seen as a landmark film in the New Queer Cinema.