restricted access Epilogue: Derek Jarman’s War

From: War Pictures

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Epilogue Derek Jarman’s War . . . the pity of war, the pity war distilled. —Wilfred Owen,“Strange Meeting” (1919) amyl: Shit. mad: What’s up, Amyl? amyl: I’ve broken my Winston Churchill mug. mad: Don’t worry, we’ll stick him together. —Derek Jarman, Jubilee (1977) I have argued that some films made in Britain during World War II offer an opportunity to think differently both about what it means to represent wars from within wars and about what it means for something to be about something else. World War II posed special representational challenges to filmmakers and others: because of its logistical enormity, the unprecedented scope of its destruction, its conceptual status as total, and the way it seemingly remade the very stuff of everyday life through aerial bombing, blackouts, rationing, and the logistical demands of total mobilization,World War II put terrific pressure on and created new critical opportunities for aesthetic and specifically cinematic representations. Light, dark, sound, silence , music, work, play, sleep, sex, food, belief, virtue, and truth all meant or could mean other, surprising things when seen from within the real and the conceptual ambit of total war. As a result, the films I have discussed rely both on moments of stylistic excess or eccentricity that call attention to the medium-specific resources of the cinema and on a range of ideologically loaded and historically specific ideas about eccentricity as a national value. At the same time that one can track an official, propaganda version of wartime eccentricity (the cherished and “little” eccentricity of the English), one also encounters darker, unofficial, or critical versions of eccentricity— Epilogue: Derek Jarman’s War | 191 moments of aesthetic and ideological excess that call attention to logical contradictions immanent to the concept of total war. Although we often remember World War II as a singular moment of national unity in Britain, it was in fact characterized by a shared experience of intellectual and emotional ambivalence about the value and significance of war, an ambivalence that demanded different approaches toward both war’s forms and its content. On the one hand, the war was widely recognized as a necessary and just war, a war that had to be fought if European civilization were to survive. On the other hand, the fresh memory of the Great War and its absurd waste made ridiculous the idea of any unambiguously good war. Kingsley Martin, editor of the left-leaning New Statesman, wrote in 1940 that Churchill misunderstood the British people’s “feelings when he talked of this as the finest moment of their history. Our feelings are more complex than that. To talk to common people in or out of uniform is to discover that determination to defend this island is coupled with a deep and almost universal bitterness that we have been reduced to such a pass.”1 Although Martin ’s feelings of complexity were of course particular to his situation, they are, I think, nonetheless representative of contradictions and compromises that were immanent to the war; Martin later wrote, “I combined in myself many of the inconsistencies and conflicts of the period which long tried to reconcile pacifism with collective security, and a defence of individual liberty with the necessity of working with Communists against Fascists.”2 As I have shown, a range of attitudes toward the war took a singularly doubled form: we would have to suspend our values—fair play, good sportsmanship, moderation—in order to save those values. The films I discuss all engage with the question of how productively to portray, as Cyril Connolly put it, “a war of which we are all ashamed and yet a war which has to be won.”3 I have also argued that these films—The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Henry V, and Brief Encounter—use the specificity of cinema and cinematic style to come productively to grips with this necessary doubleness and to imagine cinema as a form of historical reckoning especially appropriate to the complexities of total war. Although cinema is not the only medium capable of critically relating the history of World War II, and although World War II was not necessarily absolutely different from other wars, its specificities and the medium of cinema came together in Britain in the 1940s to enable an especially canny kind of cinematic thinking. More to the point, these films work at the level of form and style to develop aesthetic strategies that could accommodate that real and necessary doubleness without...