UK / Canada 1997
A subtle, intelligent and profoundly moving film based on the acclaimed novel by Pat Barker, ‘Regeneration’ tells the stories of several British Army officers brought together in Craiglockhart War Hospital, one of some 3,244 auxiliary hospitals created to deal with the wounded during World War One, where they are treated for ‘shell shock’. The military authorities, caught out by the high number (25%) of such wounded affected mentally, identified the problem as shell-shock. Although often dismissed as cowardice, this condition was later known as post-traumatic stress disorder. Treatment was oriented to returning soldiers to the front as quickly as possible and included a range of procedures ranging from rest to punishment. At Craiglockhart the psychiatrists treat the officers with humanity, applying Freudian talking cures and activity treatments.
The film centres on the real life encounter between one such psychiatrist, Dr. William Rivers, and the poet Siegfried Sassoon, a decorated officer who is institutionalised in an attempt to undermine his public disapproval of the prolongation of the war. Clearly Sassoon is not actually ill, and so arguably Rivers must persuade him to recant and thus return to the ‘madness’ of the front.
Rivers also treats other patients, notably the fictional Billy Prior, who is initially mute and disrespectful, conflicted by his need to be accepted as dutiful and his disturbing experiences in the trenches. This disrespect enables Prior to criticise Rivers’ treatment and observe the symptoms that Rivers himself shows, brought on by the horrors patients relate to him in therapy sessions and his guilt at returning them to the trenches once ‘cured’.
Also at Craiglockhart is the poet Wilfred Owen, who admires Siegfried Sassoon’s poetic work and is helped by him to develop his own writing to address war. Sassoon becomes a champion of Owen’s work and corresponds with Rivers after returning to the front and beyond – The film ends with Rivers reading Sassoon’s letter which includes Owen’s poem The Parable of the Old Man and the Young. The ‘Regeneration’ of the title perhaps refers to the repair of minds, the patching-up of soldiers to return to the front, but also raises questions that surround the connection between damage to body and to soul, and how each may be treated. Rivers’ own past includes an experiment to cut the nerve of a fellow doctor in the cause of discovering how it would regenerate. In the story told by the film, a contrast is made between the talking therapy & activity treatments offered at Craiglockhart and the coercive electro-convulsive treatments offered by others. In the background there is the broader question of how society itself may be regenerated, and the rôle of patriotism and war in energising and focussing a nation’s people. The events depicted in the film occurred as the treatment of this kind of mental illness underwent real change and the realisation that it was not derived from cowardice nor insanity, but as a natural reaction to the extraordinary circumstances of war. Rather than simply offering an anti-war rant or a pro-war glorification, Regeneration asks us to to consider the detailed experiences, contradictions and feelings of individuals and portrays their moral challenges without flinching from a depiction of the inhumanity that is perhaps the inevitable outcome of resorting to arms.
Brentwood Arts Cinema Club
For our members, we hope to find films like this that push us a little further to think; which stimulate our debate about the characters, the plot and the ideas that the film makers are trying to convey, but which also engage us in aesthetic and philosophical questions beyond the storytelling.
What do you think about this film and what are your tastes – film as escapism and entertainment or film as a provocation and enlightenment, or can we have it all? Please join us in the discussion after the film and give us your opinion!
Richard Millwood, July 2014
Links to further information:
- Did Craiglockhart hospital revolutionise mental healthcare?
- ‘Dottyville’—Craiglockhart War Hospital and shell-shock treatment in the First World War
- The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford