‘War has made masochists of us all,’ or so says Testament of Youth. Originally released in 2015, the movie was something of a disappointment. It barely made back half of its $10 million budget, and it didn’t begin to capture the richness of its source material, Vera Brittain’s WWI memoir of the same name. Still, Testament of Youth (DVD 16053) is worth examining, because it is one of the few films that focus on a woman’s wartime experiences. What’s more, the film moves women in WWI filmography from adjuncts to key players. It gives them a stake in a generation-defining calamity… and culpability in its accompanying death and decimation.
The film follows Vera Brittain, an upper middle class Englishwoman, from the spring of 1914 until the winter of 1918. In the first part of the film, Vera is preoccupied with attempting to convince her traditional father to let her attend Oxford, and by her romance with Roland Leighton, her brother Edward’s friend. This first, pre-war part of the movie portrays Vera, Edward, Roland, and their friend Victor as a tight-knit group, in a time where mixed-gendered friendship were uncommon, or even frowned upon. This very deliberate grouping establishes that Vera is as much a part of the ‘lost generation’ as her male friends, and gives her a stake in the war independent of her brother or eventual fiancé.
I think this declaration of equality and camaraderie, small though it is, is the most important contribution the film makes to WWI filmography. We tend to think of WWI as a completely masculine affair. Our cultural memory of the Second World War may include Rosie the Riveter, or women joining the military, but overall nothing similar exists for the First World War.
Vera’s own wartime story follows an arc traditionally reserved for men. Moved by patriotism and a desire to share her friends’ sacrifice, Vera abandons her studies at Oxford in order to volunteer as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse. Becoming a “V.A.D.” was one of the few roles open to women during the early years of the war, and Vera’s first weeks at the hospital seem similar to the basic training sequences we’ve seen in countless war movies. She struggles, she’s picked upon by her superiors, and she’s pushed harder than ever before.
Though Vera’s role as a V.A.D could have been treated as adjunct to the war’s horrors by director James Kent, he very deliberately brings one of the wars most defining symbols—the endless mud of the Western Front—to Vera, and then brings Vera to to the mud. One of the most powerful moments of the film comes when Vera washes the mud from a delirious soldier in her London hospital. She’s cleansing him of the sins and horrors of the battlefield, but she’s transferring them to herself in the process. The mud becomes a symbol of her own culpability in the war, and the blame she carries for her role in convincing her father to allow her brother to enlist. She begins to shoulder blame, and her nursing work becomes more of an attempt at penance than a daring call to action.
Eventually, Vera volunteers for front-line nursing work in France. Leaving England, she begins work at a field hospital, where the huts are surrounded by acres of mud and the walls shake from incoming German shells. She’s more often than not covered in mud and blood, just like the soldiers whose wounds she tends to. Though she does not actively fight, and suffers no physical wounds of her own, she deals with battle’s immediate aftermath. She’s a single nurse surrounded by a sea of dead bodies and broken men, how can she even begin to pick up the pieces?
In some ways, this film feels limited. It feels like a war movie trying to corset itself into the mold of a romantic period drama. It certainly could have spent more time on Vera’s wartime experiences (in real life, she nursed in London, Malta, and the front lines), and less time on real or manufactured romance. Still, there’s never been a WWI film quite like it. The main character is a woman who breaks the mold of women in war movies, and it gives Vera, and all women of her generation, ownership of the War, and argues that they deserve a place in its history.