Friday, January 7, 2011

Not to be missed: My Boy Jack

I am, as everyone who knows me realizes, a geek, passionately interested in the things I'm interested in.  One of my passions is history, and World War One.  My grandfather served in the Great War, enlisting in the British professional army as a young Irishman anxious to escape farm life.  He became a boy soldier at age sixteen, and joined in time to take part in the celebration of King George V's coronation in 1910.  He went ashore with the British Expeditionary Force in August 1914, served in the Royal Artillery, fought at Mons and the long retreat from that battle, was gassed at least once, wounded on the Somme, and finally mustered back to England in 1917 in the training cadre.  I loved my grandfather.  He was always a wonderful source of stories and we would go on great expeditions on the bus or streetcar in San Francisco and Seattle.  The older I get, the more I also believe his war experiences profoundly changed him in ways I don't quite understand, and it's too late now to figure it out.

Rudyard Kipling was also profoundly changed by the war.  As the poet laureate of imperialism and booster of those two great pillars of the British Empire, the British army, and the tommies that served in far off wars to preserve that empire, Kipling decried the preparedness of Great Britain to fight against her enemies during that war summer of 1914.  Last week Masterpiece on PBS showed the 2007 BBC teleplay of "My Boy Jack," the story of Kipling's efforts to get his son a posting to the British military in the early days of the war despite his crippling nearsightedness.

The cast is interesting with David Haig as Rudyard Kipling, Kim Cattrall as his wife Carrie, and Daniel Radcliffe as son John Kipling. Made for British audiences, the movie catches Radcliffe smack in the middle of his Harry Potter career at age 18, about the same as young Jack Kipling.

The story begins in England with war about to break out and young Jack desperately seeking an officership in the Royal Navy and the army.  With the services unwilling to take on a young man so visually impaired, Father Kipling seeks the aid of a long-retired friend, Lord Roberts, or "Bobs,"  former commander in India and South Africa.  Convinced that every patriot must serve the nation during the crisis, Father Kipling is willing to overlook his son's disability in order to help him get to France and a commission arrives from the Irish Guards.  Young Kipling's mother and sister Bertie are not quite so sanguine about Jack's posting and are question the poet's wisdom in pushing him into that could lead to his death.  Jack goes off to training and makes himself a fine soldier and officer.  He and his platoon are sent off to France and two weeks later take place in the first British offensive at Loos in September 1915.  Jack is listed as missing.  As the family seeks to learn his fate, it is eventually revealed he died leading his men in an assault on German machine gun positions. The family is heartbroken and Rudyard and Carrie struggle to keep their relationship together.

The performances, particularly by Haig and Cattrall are good.  Haig gives us the feeling that while he is the patriot cheerleader for the British cause. Jack's cause. He is also the father with doubts.  And while he is always searching for that stiff upper lip, we get a glimpse of his shattered state, wondering if he sent his son off to be murdered.  Cattrall's Carrie, an American also searches for that stiff upper lip, but is always more fragile, fearful of the worst.  Radcliffe is not quite there yet, and I found his performance a little wooden, but with promise. 

It is a fine movie about an experience many Britons, Frenchmen, Germans, Russians, Austrians, Turks, and Americans shared with the Kiplings (yes and Italians, Indians, Senegalese, etc.) Worth a look if it pops up again on PBS or Netflix.  If you're a Radcliffe fan, definitely worth a look.
“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Has any one else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind —
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

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