Saturday, October 31, 2015

DVD: Testament of Youth


Violets from Plug Street Wood
Sweet, I send you oversea.
(It is strange they should be blue,
Blue, when his soaked blood was red,
For they grew around his head:
It is strange they should be blue.)

Think what they have meant to me -
Life and hope and Love and You
(and you did not see them grow
Where his mangled body lay
Hiding horrors from the day;
Sweetest, it was better so.)

Violets from oversea,
To your dear, far, forgetting land
These I send in memory
Knowing you will understand

Roland Leighton April 1915

Testament of Youth is based on the memoir of the same name written by Vera Brittain, who became a prominent peace activist in the twentieth century as a result of her experiences during the First World War. The movie focuses on Vera's life just prior to and during the war years and the devastation war wreaked upon her life and the young people of her generation.

Vera Brittain was born on December 29, 1893 into a well to do family in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Her early life was comfortable as her father, Thomas Arthur Brittain, was the owner of several paper mills. Her family moved several times during her younger years, eventually settling in the town of Buxton. She boarded at St. Monica's in Kingswood, Surrey when she was thirteen years old.

As portrayed in the movie, Vera was very much a rebel who went against the social conventions of the time. Education was not seen as a valuable undertaking for women, who were expected to marry and run a household. Vera was determined to become a writer, to have and higher education and wasn't interested in marrying. When she learned about women being allowed to study at Oxford, she begged her father to allow her to sit for the Oxford exam.

In the movie her father at first refuses, partly because although women could study at Oxford, their efforts were not recognized in the form of a graduation or the conferring of a degree. Despite feeling that education is a waste of money, Vera's father reconsiders after her cause is taken up by her younger brother, Edward. Vera diligently sets out to prepare for the examination, applies to write the exam in 1913 and is astonished to learn that despite not knowing Latin, she passes.

In 1913 she also met one of her brother's friends, Roland Leighton, and they immediately fell in love. In 1914 all three planned to be studying at Oxford. Their world is portrayed in the movie as somewhat idyllic; Vera, Edward and Roland are shown swimming in a pond in the forest, there are long walks and their biggest worries are the choices they will make about their futures.

However, world events far away on the continent are set to change the course of their lives forever. In response to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Austria declares war on Serbia,  Germany declares war on Russia, and on August 4, the United Kingdom declares war on Germany. Edward, Roland Leighton, and two other friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, all enlist believing that it will be months before they are called up. In the movie, Vera and Edward's father will not allow him to enlist so he asks Vera to convince their father, which she does. The young men believe that the war will be over by Christmas and that they will be back at Oxford in the new year.

Vera feels unsettled and worries about Roland being sent to the front, but he assures her that this will likely not happen. However, he does get sent into the trenches and when he returns home after three months at the front, it is evident that the war has had a profound effect on him. He's withdrawn and depressed.  He accuses Vera of not understanding what is really happening.

Roland Leighton
Image © The Vera Brittain Fonds,

Although she initially begins her studies at Oxford, Vera finds she cannot continue while her brother and her friends are overseas. In 1915, Vera decides to leave Oxford to train as a voluntary aid detachment nurse. Roland asks Vera to marry him the next time he is home on leave and she agrees. However, on their wedding day, Vera receives a call from Roland's mother telling her that Roland has been killed at Louvencourt, France. It is December 23, 1915. Roland was only twenty years old.

Completely devastated, Vera seeks out any information about his death, from the military and eventually from a man who survived the battle and who lay in the bed next to Roland. Although the military claimed that Roland's death was quick and painless, Vera learns it was anything but. The soldier tells her that Roland was shot in the stomach by a sniper while attempting to cut the wire. He was operated on. There was no morphine available at the time of his death.

Through her nursing, Vera hopes to save her brothers and his remaining friends. She decides to volunteer to serve overseas and is sent to Malta and France. When she arrives in France she is sent to a hospital to care for the wounded - all German soldiers. It is during this experience that Vera realizes that the German soldiers are men suffering just as terribly as the British soldiers. They lose limbs and eyes, and die in agony just like the British do. Ultimately Vera loses all those she loves dearly to the machine of war.

Postwar, Vera returns reluctantly to Oxford, where she struggles to cope with a life so profoundly different than the one she had before. The final scene shows her speaking up at a rally about seeking German reparation to argue that revenge only breeds hatred and war. And in war everyone loses.

Swedish breakout actress, Alicia Vikander gives an outstanding emotional portrayal of Vera Brittain capturing her courage and determination. Viewers experience the horror of war through Vikander's remarkable performance, as she suffers through the anxiety of not knowing what is happening to her fiance Roland and through her work at the war hospitals. Kit Harington as Roland Leighton, captures some of the havoc wreaked by the trauma of trench warfare in scenes where he returns home - a completely changed man, clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Testament of Youth offers a powerful remembrance, one hundred years after, of the horror and futility of war, but especially of World War I - a war meant "to end all wars". The poetry of Roland Leighton, an example of which begins this post, is an evidence of the talent and gifts lost because of war. Director James Kent captures some of the brutality of war through the hospitals scenes and the suffering of the soldiers.  One memorable shot, just before Vera discovers her badly injured brother, shows rows of wounded men awaiting treatment at a hospital completely overwhelmed.

Testament of Youth is an intense movie that will leave viewers wanting to know more about Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton. Like the memoir, it provides insight into and epitomizes the experiences of the women of the "Lost Generation" - the label given to those who came of age during World War 1.

For more information on Vera Brittain please visit the learn peace website.

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive - Roland Leighton Collection.

Oxford University World War 1 Centenary  - Roland Aubrey Leighton

Amazingly Vera Brittain's archives are held at my alma mater, McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario Canada.
From Youth to Experience: Vera Brittain's Work For Peace in Two World Wars

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