In India some 2280 years ago, there was a warrior named Ashoka, or Ashoka the Great. Through bloody conquest he gained control over what is now pretty much the whole of the Indian continent, from Afghanistan to Bangladesh; from Assam in the East to Kerala in the South. But after a considerable battle in the Kalinga War, surrounded by thousands of dead bodies, Ashoka was filled with remorse. He realised that these bodies represented the death of hope not only for themselves but for their families, their neighbourhoods, their communities and their people. He turned to Buddhism, to non-violence and by the end of his life, it is said that, having given away all that he had all that remained was half a mango.
We do not seem to have learned much from his example.
Quite by chance, or through accidental choice, my London film Festival selections (all but one in a section called Journey) this year have resulted in three consecutive films about war and one peripherally about war; not Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket, All Quiet on the Western Front war films but nonetheless unambiguously combat zone films. In chronological order according to the time-line of the film, rather than the order in which I saw them, they are Lines of Wellington, House with a Turret, My German Friend & The Patience Stone.
It is not true to say that there was not a soldier in sight, for Lines of Wellington was full of soldiers, marching, shooting a bit, being killed or wounded and generally being in evidence. No, these films were more specifically about the effect of war on non-combatants, collateral damage so to speak. Lines of Wellington is set during the Peninsular War at a point when, finally, the Portuguese and their allies the British are winning and the French are on their way back towards their nemesis – Waterloo.
Even the most superficial look at the history of Portugal will show that the Peninsular War changed the country, its politics and its alliances completely and forever*; although it was not until Wellington became commander-in-chief of operations that the most significant changes began to take effect, namely: the scorched earth policy of the British troops as they retreated towards Lisbon, towards the lines and the lines themselves. Over a period of two years the population had been dragooned into building massive fortifications around Lisbon, three great defensive arcs beginning at Torres Vedras, almost 40 kilometres from Lisbon, a second set about 20 kilometres and a final set around the city itself. They remain visible even today. Arriving with Masséna at the plateau, the Aide-de-Camp Pelet wrote in his military diary:
“On arriving at Sobral, instead of the “undulating accessible plateaux” that we had been told to expect, we saw steeply scarped mountains and deep ravines, a road-passage only a few paces broad, and on each side walls of rock crowned with everything that could be accomplished in the way of field fortifications garnished with artillery; then at last it was plainly demonstrated to us that we could not attack the Lines of Montechique with the 35,000 or 36,000 men that still remained of the army. For, even if we had forced some point of the Lines, we should not have had enough men left to seize and occupy Lisbon.”
How this escaped the notice of French spies remains a mystery, suffice to say that when the French arrived at the lines under the command of Marechal, Marquis de Masséna it would appear that the two commanders looked at one another through their telescopes, raised their plumed tricorn hats and then the French ran away. This may be a cinematic simplification.
The film concentrates on only a few people: a young widow; an elderly woman who hides in her house in Coimbra while her family flee, her husband having to be forcibly restrained; a young poet who loses his wife in the retreat from Pombal and only finds her later with another man; a wounded Portuguese Lieutenant who survives to fight again, helped by the elderly woman who stayed behind – what the film most comprehensively shows though, is the terrible and endless processions of refugees fleeing behind the lines through the devastated landscape.
Although now expressly forbidden by the Geneva Convention, a scorched earth policy – one of the most devastating strategies of war-time, even used in ancient times by the Romans and the Vikings – was most famously adopted in the Peninsular War, the American Civil War, the Boer Wars and in Russia by Hitler and Stalin, the easily imaginable effect on civilian populations whose lives are affected by the loss of crops, livestock and infrastructure cannot be understated.
* the neutrality of Portugal in the Second World War was largely as a result of historical memory.
House with a Turret, a film in black and white, moves us to the Ukraine in 1944. We follow the journey of a small boy travelling with his mother in a train to stay with the Grandfather. The mother falls ill and they are forced to leave the train, the little boy is stranded with all their luggage, but loses a satchel with their food in it. The hardship and deprivation are everywhere abundantly apparent, devastatingly exaggerated by atrocious winter conditions. The little boy is at the mercy of unfeeling adults, most of whom are already at their wits’ end and the comfort of strangers is pretty much the last thing on their minds…
My German Friend comes into the London Film Festival section Love. (I am not at all sure that I like this new format, but it may be that it will just take time to get used to it). We follow the lives and journeys of two young people, Sulimat and Friedrich, growing up in Buenos Aires. The children are friends, but their parents are clearly not and during the film this becomes more and more apparent, until, of course, one realises that Sulimat’s family are Jewish. Although this is clearly a love story, it fits into this blog because the secrets in both families held over from the Second World War, and deeply felt by the adults, break out into their children’s lives in a horrible and frightening way, and lead on to the actions and reactions of the two young people…
The Patience Stone has an even smaller cast. A young and attractive woman is trapped in the front line of a war-torn city, somewhere in Afghanistan, because her husband has a bullet in his neck and cannot be moved. In desperation she looks for her aunt, but her aunt has left for safety, as have her brothers-in-law and the rest of the family. Under constant rocket attack she eventually finds her aunt and leaves her two children with her for the time being, while she returns to her husband, but her troubles are not over however. She finds that the fact that her husband is unconscious makes it possible for her to talk to him in an open and frank manner, so she unburdens herself thereby giving us an insight into her marriage through flash backs, she calls him her patience stone after a mythical stone that once found can be given all your innermost secrets, which when you have unburdened yourself completely will shatter – leaving you in peace…
In every sense, without exception, these films are about non-combatants: the elderly, families and children affected one way or another by the privations, displacements, dislocations of war until they are sent mad with grief or shock, die of starvation or sink in the struggle to survive and those that do survive are left with the scars, physical or internal, from the shattering circumstances which they have endured.
In their different ways, these films are deeply moving and intense. The cinematography, although extremely varied, is universally quite exceptional, the musical scores are wonderful and the acting is great, these are gems – see them if you can!