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

Strange Meeting


Wilfred Owen

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,-
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand pains that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
"Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause to mourn."
"None," said that other, "save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also, I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now . . ."

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