Diary of an Unknown Soldier

the problems of authenticity

A gritty print shows the head of a young soldier at Verdun on the Western Front. Softly, in the quiet voice of an old-fashioned breed (it could be the voice of a Siegfried Sassoon or Robert Graves), he speaks of his private terrors. He compares himself to his colleagues. There's Tom, the oldhander who never shows fear and who now, as the young man looks towards him for reassurance, refuses to meet his eye.  There's Crompton, coldly angry, declaring his readiness to bayonet three Germans, at the least, before the end of the day. And there's the young man himself, isolated by his terror, his reluctance to die, his sense of the bitter pointlessness of their sacrifices.

  The messenger arrives.  It's time to move forward. The young man's hands pluck at the sleeve of his own uniform, as if to remind himself that he is still alive. Walking slowly uphill, he notices a soldier sitting on the side of a crater: a young man just like himself, hungrily drinking a tin of soup.  But he's wearing the uniform of a German. This is what the enemy looks like. These are the kind of men he must kill.

  The day is over. Corpses sprawl in the mud. Blind eyes stare up at the sky, but the young soldier has survived to comment on the day's results. This may look like slaughter, but here at Verdun, in 1916, loss of life counts for nothing against the fact that an advance of 200 yards' progress has been achieved on the Allies' side. This is what victory looks like.

   Everything seems so unquestionably authentic in this forgotten footage that it comes as a shock to the viewer to discover that the entire film, 17 minutes of newsreel, was made on handheld cameras in 1959.  The actors are unknowns. The tremulous voice over, that of the unknown soldier, is that of the 24 year-old writer/director Peter Watkins.

  Watkins is better known today for Privilege, Culloden and (after it was banned by Hugh Carleton Greene from television and went on to win an Oscar for best documentary feature of 1966) The War Game. He has also produced extraordinary films about the painter Edvard Munch and about life in the Paris Commune, in which the actors actually step out of character to question the intrusion of the media - the film-maker - into their lives. Originally motivated (or so it seems) by his experiences as a conscript into National Service, Watkins settled in Canterbury during the early 1950s and began directing a local group of actors there, having himself studied at RADA. Already praised in the amateur film world as a pioneer of the documentary style, he was working on The Diary of an Unknown Soldier in 1959.  It was during this time that Watkins was acting as an assistant editor to Kevin Brownlow at World Wide Pictures, a commercial film company.

  More can be read about Brownlow's influence, and about the assistance that Watkins provided for his own film - working with Andrew Mollo - from that period, It Happened Here, at Peter Watkins' extensive website (http://pwatkins.mnsi.net). Here, without going into Watkins's own massively ambitious later work, The Journey, I only want to focus on the value of reshowing one of a young director's earliest films now, in the year 2014. 

  Why are we not seeing it? Here is one possibilityWriting his memoirs of life as a television critic, Milton Shulman related a significant episode from the time when he worked as a film buyer for Granada Television, back in the early 1960s. Somebody mentioned a Watkins film as worthy of being shown on television. Its subject was the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and its name was The Forgotten Faces.  So impressed was Shulman by the film that he arranged for Cecil Bernstein, Vice Chairman of Granada, to have a private screening. Bernstein was awed: how had such an extroardinary piece of news footage been smuggled out of Hungary without detection? Told that it had been shot by Watkins in England, on the back streets of Canterbury, Bernstein flinched. It would not, he said, be possible to show it: 'If we show a film like that, no-one will ever believe our newsreels.'

  It would be sad to discover that this same narrow attitude prevailed today. Certainly, the eerily convincing presentation of Diary of an Unknown Soldier makes it far more watchable than much of the footage to which we are ceaselessly exposed in this year of mournful recollection.  But the powerful message that it conveys - the pointlessness of war - is as vital as ever.  So is the opinion, delivered by the narrator in the soldier's voice, that it is impossible, even during the course of a war, to dehumanise our fellow men, to regard murder as an act of heroism. The German figure, the soldier sitting on a bank and drinking his soup, is deliberately positioned in a film that was made twenty years after the outbreak of WW2. Watkins, speaking as the soldier diarist, asks himself how it is possible to view this cheerful young fellow - the two soldiers could be brothers - as his enemy? To himself, the answer is plain, but the question is clearly being directed at us, the witnesses and judges of an unforgotten past.

  Is it because Watkins' film remains so unflinchingly antimilitaristic that it is not being shown today? Is it because its exceptional technique unermines the authentic footage available from that period? Whatever the reason, it's not a good one. But anybody interested in seeing Watkins's mesmerising contribution can do so by buying the bfi issue of Privilege, on which both Diary and Forgotten Faces are included as short extras.

See introduction

   Added: Wednesday 18 June 2014

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