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Produced by Anglo International Films, BBC, Liberty Films - 1988 92 minutes. Distributor - Movie Visions. Starring Laurence Olivier, Tilda Swinton, Owen Teale and Nathaniel Parker, Sean Bean Written and directed by Derek Jarman. Poems by Wilfred Owen. Music composed and conducted by Benjamin Britten. Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The Melos Ensemble, The Bach Choir and the Highgate School Choir. Simon Preston, Organist. Soloists: Galina Vishnevskaya, soprano. Peter Pears, tenor, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone.

Plot Summary

British composer Benjamin Britten wrote his War Requiem (opus 66) for the reopening of war-ravaged Coventry Cathedral in 1962, drawing on the poetry of World War I foot soldier Wilfred Owen. The resulting oratorio has now been realized as a film by Derek Jarman and producer Don Boyd. Told as the emotional remembrance of an old soldier (Laurence Olivier), War Requiem is both a faithful visual companion to Britten's work, and an imaginative revelation of its meaning. Using Owen's experiences as a dramatic framework, Jarman has also created the iconographic characters of Poet (Nathaniel Parker), Unknown Soldier (Owen Teale), and Nurse (Tilda Swinton) to flesh out the theme of remembrance. The film is an tender treatise on young men who die of something tragically beyond their control, a metaphor that only reinforces the nature of the film as a visionary and contemporary statement on the horror and tragedy of war.

General Review

The film opens with Olivier appearing as an old soldier brandishing his useless medals as a young nurse wheels him across a rugged landscape. On the soundtrack Olivier's aged but still-eloquent voice recites "Strange Meeting'' , the poem that Britten uses to close the "War Requiem" - a poem in which two soldiers who have killed each other in battle meet again and reach understanding before they sleep. Then the "War Requiem" begins in the famous recorded performance led by the composer. We are in what looks like Juliet's tomb, except Wilfred Owen is lying on the catafalque and a nurse is grieving at his side. What follows alternates staged images of World War I - nurses winding bandages, men digging winter trenches - with scenes from the life of Wilfred Owen, "realizations" of the poems, and documentary footage from World War I up to the Vietnam War. Throughout the work, Jarman gives us images and metaphors: little boys who grow up to be soldiers blow soap bubbles and light the candles on Christmas trees; Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac becomes Abraham in a leather apron brandishing a knife at Wilfred Owen as an audience of cigar-smoking fat cats cheer him on. Owen, who wrote poems in the trenches and was killed at the age of 27 by a sniper a week before the war ended, was inspiration for Britten's piece. The sequences vary in texture from silently acted scenes to virtuosic film montage to a single, audacious long take of Tilda Swinton's interpretation of the "Sanctus'' section of the work. The rhythm of mood and image is always in sync with the music. By any standards, it's an astonishing piece of film making, perhaps Jarman's finest work.

Nat Review

While he had done three TV roles (Inspector Morse: Deceived by Flight, Never come back and Piece of Cake), this was Nathaniel Parker's first movie film. He was just 28 years old and as such was exactly suited to portray Wilfred Owen who was 27 when he died. As he had no spoken lines to deliver, conveyance of the meaning and alliance with the music depended entirely on his ability to express by his facial and bodily movements. This he did to perfection. The first scene accompanied by Britten's music was as a corpse on a catafalque with the nurse mourning over him. Close up shots of his face and body as well as silhouette shots of the total scene graphically portray the tragedy that was to be explored. Both his make-up and, most importantly, his facial expressions were graphic. His eyes were mesmerizing. This scene was followed by flash-backs from his past experiences both as a civilian and as a soldier. His promise as a fine young man was shown by simple acts as helping the women folk hang the laundry on the clothes line. His induction into the military followed showing the awkwardness of a very young man stumbling around in drills. We then move to scenes of a young officer with his men, inspecting them in the trenches, bringing them coffee, lifting and mourning one who had just been knifed by a German soldier and his killing of that soldier. The last of the film is taken with these two coming to terms with and laying to rest these acts of killing. In all these varied scenes, he does not speak a word, but what he does, what he thinks, what he is becoming is painfully evident from his expressions and movements. This is a masterpiece in pantomime.In the end we see him moving, as in a catatonic state, to the inevitable - his death.


Solo parts. Jarman wrote the solo parts for leading singers of three combatant nations - Galina Vishnevskaya from the Soviet Union, Peter Pears from England and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau from Germany. And he interwove the ancient liturgical text of the Requiem, in Latin, with powerful settings of poems by Wilfred Owen.

Misguided music video

Not all reviews were favourable:War Requiem is a work which invites personal involvement, so one can appreciate the obvious love and need to contribute which the filmmakers have for it, but Britten's music and Wilfred Owen's poetry speak so eloquently for themselves that this pretentious performance art approach merely detracts from them.


Out on DVD as a re-issue

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