Private Peaceful : A Historical Film Review

I recently watched the movie Private Peaceful and thought that I would do a review of the film, exploring the historical accuracy. Enjoy 🙂

     Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, Private Peaceful portrays the touching story of two brothers as they enlist for the British Army at the start of World War I. Directed by Pat O’Connor and released in 2012, the movie stars George Mackay, Jack O’Connell and the late Richard Griffiths. As the film progresses, the details of war become more elaborate – from the weaponry, to the treatment of minorities, Private Peaceful makes it clear to its audience that war is not a pleasant thing. Under the clever directing of Pat O’Connor and the attention paid to the details, Private Peaceful is a somewhat accurate historical film. Overall, the film accurately illustrates the horrors of war, both at the frontlines and back home through a colorized version making it easy for any audience to grasp.

     Private Peaceful depicts the story of two young brothers, Tommo (Mackay) and Charlie (O’Connell), as well as their poor Devonshire family from 1908 to 1916. The film starts off with a teenaged Tommo, who is imprisoned in an army cell and begins to retell his memories from past to present. Throughout their childhood, the brothers grow very close to each other– from falling in love with the same girl to working together on the farm, the boys develop a loving and protective bond. When the horrors of the Great War arrive to their village, the boys enlist to serve in the Devon Regiment (British Forces) to go overseas in Flanders, Belgium. As months pass by, the two brothers encounter the many consequences of war, such as coping with the death of their peers or avoiding exploding shells and gas attacks. The brothers manage to remain together and support each other in these times of despair, especially Charlie’s overprotectiveness towards his younger brother Tommo. What allows the audience to empathize with the brothers is Charlie’s brotherly love during an attack on the German lines when he disobeys his sergeant’s orders and stays with his injured brother in no man’s land. Accused of cowardice in front of the enemy, under the orders of General Haig, Charlie is sentenced to execution by the firing squad and the film winds down to his death. Tommo concludes the film by speaking in present tense and promising to look after his nephew, hinting towards an optimistic future.

     First of all, the minute war breaks out during the film, the pressures of war arise in the rural village of Devon. As the British casualties increase, the rural village of Devon must encourage men to enlist in their regiment. The Colonel, who governs the village, indicates that the men needed must be “fit able-bodied men, able to fulfill their patriotic duty”. This leads to different tactics used by the Devonshire authority in order to increase the amount of recruits, which are quite similar to those used historically. For instance, the Colonel and other high ranks of the Devon Regiment, parade through the city to promote the enlistment of the men. One officer gives an encouraging speech and further persuades the men by intimidating them with the possible violation of their women and murder of their children, all done by the Hun (Germans). While listening to the officer, Tommo is encouraged by an older woman to enlist. She continues to pressure him, claiming that it is “every man’s duty to fight when his country calls” but stops abruptly when he does not step up and instead claims that he is not a man and is a coward. In my opinion, this moment shows the public embarrassment caused by not enlisting and can be compared back in history when women handed out white feathers to symbolize a man’s cowardice. I found them similar, as both women’s aim was to publicly embarrass the men who did not enlist. Not only are men persuaded into enlisting in the regiment, but farmers must also give their horses since they’re not just needed for cavalry but also for the transportation of soldiers and munitions. Another example of the promotion of recruitment is the propaganda posters spread throughout the village. Much like in history, these posters sparked the patriotism within men as optimistic images and inspirational phrases (such as “Are YOU in this?”) made them want to serve their country and fulfill their patriotic duty. Despite his doubt of enlisting, as the film progresses, Tommo believes that being a soldier is far better off than working for someone else, it gets a better pay and it’s a way of getting away from home. Thus, much like other young men in history, Tommo enlists underage by using a false birth year. Tommo’s way of thinking can be justified by historians as many claimed that men enlisted to increase their stereotypical manliness and many men thought that going off to war was like going off to an adventure. On the other hand, there were the women who had to stay back home while their sons and husbands went off to war. Mrs. Peaceful and Molly did not support the Peaceful brothers going off to war as they had plenty of roles to fulfill at home. Much like the women in history, both women in this film tried to persuade the Peacefuls to stay but were unsuccessful. Therefore as depicted in the film, the effects of war touched everyone and many were expected to make sacrifices for the well being of their country.

            Secondly, much like in history, throughout the film many minorities are mistreated. One of the first situations introduced to the audience is the character and treatment of Big Joe. Big Joe is Charlie and Tommo’s older brother and he has a learning disability. Although different, his two brothers protect him from bullies and love him nonetheless. However, when the boys’ father dies, the Colonel who employs most of the village, suggests to Mrs. Peaceful that she lock Big Joe up in the lunatic asylum and come work for his wife. Mrs. Peaceful reacts quite disturbingly and makes it clear that she must look after he son. This reaction is fairly unique for this time period, as at the time, mental illnesses were not highly accepted amongst the society and many suffering from mental illnesses were locked up in asylums. Thus, Mrs. Peaceful’s answer to the Colonel was quite courageous and I found that the director included her loving and nurturing character to send the message that being different is okay. Another example of Big Joe’s maltreatment is when Grandma Wolf (Mrs. Peaceful’s auntie) literally bullies him because of his disability. Although this behavior nowadays is very wrong, during those times mental illnesses and disabilities were taboos amongst others. In addition, the treatment of women was very poor, although they were of great importance. Many already know the great roles that women played, specifically the stereotypical stay at home moms or housewives. However, once the men went overseas to serve their countries, barely any workers were left and women were needed to replace their position in munitions factories. Although they were of great importance, many believed that allowing women to work was unacceptable and they were often made fun of. This historical controversy was shown by the Colonel when the war had just broke out and replacements were needed in work areas. Also, the treatment of ethnic minorities was another historical segment that was incorporated in the film. Throughout history, the treatment of ethnic minorities was very flawed and many people from enemy or ethnic descents were deprived from their everyday rights. This is simply and clearly shown when the soldiers of British decent from Devon, including Tommo, were faced with some Indians at the local pub. The group of Brits treated them poorly by uttering racial slurs at the Indian men who enlisted, such as making fun of their accent and smell. This short scene was pertinent to the audience as it showed the harsh standards that people from ethnic minorities had to face, as they struggled with racial discrimination. Therefore, Private Peaceful accurately displayed the different types of discrimination that have occurred in history, specifically at the time of World War I.

            Thirdly, one of the most historical representations in this entire film was trench warfare. One of the most devastated parts of the war was having to fight in trenches. With the knowledge from veterans, many have grown up knowing the horrible conditions that the soldiers faced. However, in this specific film, I found the trenches very clean, if you will. They were not filthy, rats did not scurry along the wooden boards and only one corpse was shown on the barbed wire. This film’s representation of the trenches was, in my opinion, fairly innocent however this can be explained by two reasons. One might say it was the beginning of the war thus the dirt hadn’t settled in yet, the weather was fairly good and the trenches were not contaminated. However, the troops were fighting in Flanders (where Ypres is) and the gas attack at Ypres was very deadly; so more gory trenches would have made the battle scenes more realistic. On the other hand, Private Peaceful is a film intended for older children and the contents must be suitable for its audience. However the one element of the trenches correctly portrayed was the architecture of the trenches as they were in zigzags. Throughout World War I, trenches were dug in zigzags in order to prevent fires from spreading, shells from exploding further in the trenches and enemy raids would become more difficult because of the maze-like rows. Thus the film correctly portrayed that aspect of the trenches. Another significant part of this film was the gas attacks. In this film, the gas attacks occurred many times and the soldiers knew how to respond to them. However, the gas attacks were out of place since in history, the first gas attack occurred at the Second Battle of Ypres on April 22nd, 1915. Although the location is correct, as Ypres is in the region of Flanders, the date is incorrect since the Devon Regiment had just gone off to war so the time period was 1914. Also in the film, the soldiers were equipped with fairly advanced gas masks, which were also out of place. At the time, technology was not developed and soldiers used handkerchiefs soaked in urine to act as gas masks. Even after gas masks were invented, they weren’t as advanced and were of low quality. Nonetheless, one attribute that was extremely accurate were the uniforms and the weaponry used by the Devon Regiment. The uniforms were highly accurate as the soldiers were wearing the 1914 Pattern Leather Equipment; the details put into the uniforms made them seem like originals. The weaponry used by the soldiers were bayonets, rifles and handguns. Also I found that the training the soldiers went through at the rest camp is what made the film very realistic for the audience, as it showed the hardships soldiers had to go through. On top of the trench warfare, one significant scene in the film was the court martial scene and Charlie’s execution. Charlie was sent to a court martial hearing as during an attack on the German lines he disobeyed his sergeant’s orders and stayed with the injured Tommo. Despite Sergeant Hanley’s warnings that he will be sentenced to death, Charlie refuses his orders several times and continues to stay beside Tommo. He is then accused of cowardice in front of the enemy, which has severe consequences in the British Army. After the court martial, under the orders of General Haig, Charlie is sentenced to execution by the firing squad. These scenes are highly accurate as not only is the character of General Haig a real general in the British Forces at that time but this scene also indicates the harsh consequences enforced in the British Army. At the time, desertion and disobeying commands were the main reasons for execution by the firing squad. Therefore Private Peaceful very accurately displayed the consequences of cowardice and bravery. Thus, as a result of the variety in the accuracy of trench warfare and the British Forces, I found that the film was confusing at some scenes and its accuracy diminished.

In Private Peaceful, there were many attributes that made the film historically accurate. Alongside these historical elements were details that made the film enjoyable. To start off, the film was composed of many strengths and weaknesses. I found that the way the director introduced Tommo and Charlie’s brotherly love for each other at the beginning of the film is what triggered the audience’s empathy. Another strength that stood out was the portrayal of Charlie Peaceful’s trial and death. The scenes with the court martial and his execution by the firing squad created a sense of suspense in the film as well as indicating the harsh consequences of the British Army. As for the weaknesses of the film, I found that the battle scenes were poorly shot and placed in the film. The battle scenes only occurred towards the end of the film and I found that they were very innocent and did not correctly display the despair and struggles found in war. Also the gas attacks were out of place and gave viewers an incorrect perception of the events that occurred in World War I. However what made up for the poorly shot scenes and other flaws was the brilliant acting of several actors. I found that the acting of John Lynch (Sergeant Hanley) made the training and battle scenes very accurate since his harsh and bitter lines made it clear that the war was not a pleasant thing. The young George MacKay (Tommo Peaceful) added an innocent vibe, which was very much needed during the violent times. To top it off, the late Richard Griffiths (The Colonel) portrayed his character in such an outstanding way, especially when his arrogance and greedy manners indicated his overpowering authoritative figure. Despite these actors that fulfilled their roles very precisely, one inadequate actress stood out: Alexandra Roach who played Molly Monks/Peaceful. I found that this actress lacked emotions, specifically when her husband went off to war as she failed to display the worried and heartbroken emotions that would naturally occur in this situation. In my opinion, the plot did build itself to a logical climax with Charlie’s refusal to leave the injured Tommo in no man’s land. With the building suspense of the viewers, the film resolved itself in a bittersweet manner, with the execution of Charlie Peaceful. I found that the film’s resolution left doleful and empathetic reactions with the film’s audience. In my opinion, more gory scenes would have made the film better as the events that took place would be more realistic. Overall, I would definitely recommend Private Peaceful to another student as not only did it hold my interest uniformly but it also portrayed historical content accurately and in a manner that was easy to grasp.

            To conclude, Private Peaceful was not only a touching film but also a film that made its viewers reflect on the historical events that took place during World War I. Despite its few flaws, I found that the film’s content made its audience more aware about historical events that took place in the past. The brilliant acting, the details of the costumes and the placement of the historical events are what contributed to the accuracy of Private Peaceful. 

By: Purple Pansy

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