What’s the Point of a War Film: War Requiem

We’re ending our series on WWI films with War Requiem. I’d never seen this movie before I watched it for this blog post, but I chose it for this series because it seemed nontraditional. Little did I know. This film was probably the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen. Well, I shouldn’t say “weird,” I should say avant garde. I didn’t enjoy it, but that’s probably because I don’t enjoy avant garde cinema in general. Still, this film stands out because it is an interpretation of an interpretation of the First World War.

Released in 1989, the film tells a war story, but without any dialogue. Some sound comes from an occasional Wilfred Owen poem, but the film is really a showcase for War Requiem, British composer Benjamin Brittain’s orchestra tribute to the war. Brittain composed the score in the 1960s, but her never served in the War himself. He leaned heavily on Wilfred Owen’s poetry, and the music itself is beautiful. It tells a story of a pointless, unending war. There’s great sadness, but also little victories. Shame, joy, hope, and loss. It’s all conveyed through the music, which makes me wonder why a movie version was even necessary.

The cast, certainly, is star-studded. It stars a young Tilda Swinton, and Laurence Olivier even makes an appearance. There are portions where the characters have conversations with each other, but the audience can’t hear what they’re saying. Most of the acting is basically pantomime, and there are long stretches where the characters seem to be acting out some prearranged ceremony. I think, ultimately, that may be one of the points director Derek Jarman was trying to make. In a way, subsequent generations have reduced the people who lived through and died in the war—people like Wilfred Owen, who’s the main character of the movie—into certain proscribed roles. X ordered Y to go to war and there Y was slaughtered.

But maybe that point isn’t for us, the people who had nothing to do with the War. The film places a huge emphasis on ritual. Tilda Swinton’s Nurse crowns a dead Owen with his helmet. A priest sacrifices Owen while fat civilians in top hats and monocles watch. The Nurse crowns herself and other soldiers with a barbed wire crown meant to invoke Jesus’ crown of thorns. Maybe the reason why the war began, and why it continued, was because the people in power didn’t see their soldiers as humans, but as actors in some scripted, divinely blessed play.

I’m really not sure what to make of this movie. Its anti-war message is far from ambiguous, but it feels like a condemnation. The trouble is, I can’t figure out what it’s condemning. The obvious answer is war and violence, but it feels like something more than that. Maybe I’m searching for meaning where there is none. I think, instead of trying to make sense of World War I, the point of War Requiem is to show just how pointless it all actually is. But was just the war pointless, or is trying to interpret it pointless? That’s definitely not a question I’m prepared to answer.

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