« War as seen through the eyes of a child » is a favourite theme of both journalists and filmmakers. It’s a reliable, sometimes facile way to get the audience emotionally invested in your story and more susceptible to agreeing with whatever you have to say about it. After all, what could bring out the inherent brutality and absurdity of war more powerfully than the perspective of an innocent, impressionable child? Blissfully unaware of the political complexities that lead to war, a child experiences its horrific consequences firsthand; from that point on, they may choose to accept and endure them for what they are, or instead cope – as children often do – by simply integrating it into their daily routine and turning potential trauma into just another game.
Hope And Glory lies firmly in the latter camp, and its unabashed nostalgia for this dark and violent period of British history is at the root of its most affecting moments. Based on writer/director John Boorman’s own childhood experience of the Blitz, it takes full and complete advantage of its protagonist’s youth to colour every moment of happiness and hardship with equal fondness. Any consequent softening of the pain of war is tempered by Boorman’s tenderly accurate understanding of boyhood cruelty and imagination. Through the eyes of 10 year-old Bill Rowan, Nazi bombings and the subsequent enlistment of all military-aged males turn a peaceful London suburb into a vast playground in which both adult and childhood fears and desires that were either hidden or sublimated become more apparent, even if he presently lacks the maturity to fully understand them.
This puts an interesting spin on the expected pre-teen rites of passage: Scenes such as Bill’s initiation into a gang of miniature bomb site scavengers – which involves a hammer and a live bullet – strip what we think of as “typical” childhood group behaviour of its social codes to reveal the violent power dynamics these codes sanction and sublimate. A slightly older girl becomes a temporary sideshow curiosity after losing her mother in an air raid, only to then be coerced into showing her genitals in order to be accepted into the gang. It may seem like typical kid stuff, but viewers familiar with John Boorman’s work will notice a pattern: as he did before in Hell In The Pacific, Deliverance, Excalibur and most infamously in Zardoz, Boorman is studying people’s adaptation to the collapse or endangerment of societal structures. In each case, the plot is driven by a Hobbesian narrative that assumes violence to be man’s natural state, although the degree to which Boorman accepts and endorses that premise varies from film to film. Outside of its autobiographical nature, what makes Hope And Glory an especially notable entry in that saga is the demographic feminization caused by the call-up. With his neighbourhood depleted of its adult male population, Bill finds himself surrounded by female characters – particularly his mother and two sisters – to which the scavengers and his ex-womanizer of a grandfather provide a counter-example. Nowhere is this experience better exemplified than in the clothes shop scene, in which the camera pans out and sideways as Bill’s mother (Sarah Miles) and a friend make their way across rows of clothes racks and progressively undress while discussing their lack of sex life until Bill emerges from the rack behind them; after a brief bust shot of the two women, we cut to a lateral tracking medium shot that allows us to follow Bill at his eye-level and partake in his exploration of female figures and undergarments.
In that respect, Hope And Glory mirrors Zardoz’s juxtaposition of a castrating matriarchy with the toxically virile “Brutals” manipulated into doing its dirty work, and corrects that film’s misogyny all while identifying its source. Instead of regurgitating adolescent clichés without giving them any flesh, Boorman opens his audience’s eyes to the myriad of ways pre-teen boys see the world and tune it to their dreams.
The entirety of the film’s events, including those depicted in scenes that do not adopt Bill’s point of view or from which he is absent, are seen through that same semi-subjective filter. Like A Christmas Story, nostalgia is woven right into the film reel itself, except that Boorman – who, unlike Bob Clark, is telling his own story – doesn’t use it to sugarcoat his own memories, but rather to underline the meaningfulness of moments and feelings that, in the face of the existential threat posed by war, seem deceptively insignificant: A drunk grandfather humiliating his wife by toasting his old flames, only to get increasingly tearful as he struggles to remember a name; an older sister smuggling her stationed Canadian boyfriend through her siblings’ window to have sex; wistful conversations between a married mother and her husband’s best friend that reveal old, fully-preserved love that will never be consummated… Bill may not fully understand all of these things but he bears witness to them nonetheless, passively accepting them as though somehow aware of how important they are.
1987 was quite a year for war films. Not only did it see the release of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Full Metal Jacket, it saw no less than three major films revolving about children – or, more specifically, boys – experiencing different facets of the Second World War: Empire Of The Sun, Au Revoir Les Enfants and Hope And Glory. Of these three, the last two were based on their respective filmmaker’s personal memories. Hope And Glory does not quite reach the same emotional impact as Spielberg and Malle’s films, perhaps because the same acquiescent lucidity on his own nostalgia that makes his film so distinct paradoxically prevents Boorman from completely renewing the familiar boyhood tropes with which he peppers his story. Nevertheless, the acumen with which he portrays his rapport with the opposite sex as well as the source of his fascination with man’s psychological and physical violence rises it well above most cinematic childhood portraits.