by Sam Juliano
John Boorman’s Hope and Glory stands apart from nearly-all other World War II-themed films in that it presents an idyllic view of terrible events, seen through the eyes of a ten-year old boy. By displaying the humor and the resilience of the boy’s family and the British people in general, the film at first broaches denial, and then segues into domestic life wrought under danger and hardship, where luck plays a large part in the survival game. Hope and Glory is for it’s writer-director a semi-autobiographical work centering around his own experiences of a child growing up during the war, and of the psychology of a nation not yet ready for such a calamity. When a school teacher quips “a few bombs may wake up this country” and the boy’s mother complains that they’re “starting a war on such a beautiful day”you know that many aren’t prepared for, nor aware of the deadly battle of wills that is to soon ensue.
Young Bill Rohan, played by a spunky young actor named Sebastian Rice Edwards, lives with his parents and two sisters in a London suburb. His father, who is too old to serve in combat, is assigned to a military desk job early in the film, so the young boy is surrounded by females and a close friend of his mother. His daily routine is in large measure to attend school, engage in mischief with friends, and scour through the wreckage caused by bombs that penetrate the blimp defense employed around the country. You don’t have to be British to be stirred by an emphatic school master’s patriotic speech invoking Churchill and and the brave young warriors enlisted to defend the country, with the strains of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” underscoring the noble defiance. When Billy holds up the cover of a war periodical at the end of the sermon, we’re reminded that the kids think it’s a big adventure, no different that when Billy plays with his collection of soldiers before going to bed. And few mothers won’t be able to relate to a wrenching scene when Bill’s mum breaks down a the train station, at the planned prospect of sending Billy and his youngest sister away to safer pastures until the end of the war, only to change her mind and be rejected by the officials.
From the opening scene in a movie theater, when grim newsreel footage displays a somber Neville Chamberlain, who asserts that war is imminent, to the deliciously ironic ending when a child celebrates the destruction of a school by an errant bomb by shouting “Thank you Adolf” Hope and Glory is infused with humor and the care-free nature of children, who can’t register the dread and horrors of war. After the latest bombings they run around the streets gathering up shrapnel and other collectible souvenirs. Billy even gets to rain on the parade of his older sister Sammi, who is making out with her boyfriend in the remains of a bombed out building, by having his friends heave stones at the young lovers. Boorman deliberately refuses to have Billy see even a wounded soldier, as it would compromise what he was trying to suggest in the film, and would invariably tread the same territory as films that focus only on death and destruction. Boorman seems to be saying that the war didn’t dehumanize people, rather in the face of extreme danger, it’s love and outlook that matters most. Granted, Hope and Glory often pushes the envelope on sentiment, but as the film was written as a recollection of past events by an adult reflecting on them, this kind of feeling is woven into the fabric of the story, which poses the question “So what did you do during the war years?” The air raids, the plane dogfights and the scorched landscapes (a particularly effective sequence shown in silhouette with golden light of soldiers gathering the dead, is complemented on the soundtrack by Chopin’s haunting “Prelude in E minor”) are daily routines and reminders in war there is little reason to be upbeat. Yet, ever the Englishman, Boorman provides levity in the eccentric nature of many of his compatriots in an outstanding sequence when a German soldier lands on British soil. The bobby who takes control of him leads him through a vegetable patch, explaining to him “Here are the brussel sprouts” an amusing moment dealing with the British predilection with order. And when the father returns to the family with a can of “German jam” the mother poses that it’s an axis plot to poison the entire population.
Of course Boorman plays for comedy up front in the film’s last section at the country home of the boy’s lovably cantankerous maternal grandfather, who plays cricket and tells the kids to “catch fish,” an order they comply with after a bomb explodes nearby causing all the fish to rise to the surface, subsequently enabling the kids to return with a few hundred. This ironic form of ‘salvation’ is another example of Boorman’s suggestion that good emanates from bad. The incredulous geezer announces “My, you’ve outdone yourselves this time!” The British actor Ian Bannen is excellent as the habitual complainer with a soft side.
The gifted cinematographer Philippe Rousselot gives the film a striking period feel in muted color that beautifully evokes Britain in the 30’s and 40’s. Peter Martin’s subtle score, especially the title theme-music perfectly evokes the film’s sentiments and mood, and his use of classical standards like the aforementioned Chopin, Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” and Wagner, are effectively employed, in establishing mood, period and national culture. Of the performers not yet mentioned, Sammi Davis as Billy’s love-starved older sister gives an affecting performance, but Sarah Miles as the mother overacts. David Hayman is fine as a loving father, even if the role is a stereotype.
Never before in Boorman’s career, which includes action-adventure films like Point Blank, The Emerald Forest and Deliverance, has he then or since exhibited the sensiblities prevalent in Hope and Glory. But only in this instance did he have a personal story to tell, and as such this material was dearest to his heart. Hope and Glory’s unassuming spontaneity is a breath of fresh air in a film genre rarely marked by levity. It’s a lovely work, my favorite film of 1987, and and one of the best film of its decade.
Note: In 1987 when ‘Hope and Glory’ was released I escorted 15 sixth-grade students to the Guttenberg Theatre to see the film. It was a most successful experience, and a few of the gifted kids wrote great reviews. The film was a linchpin in commencing with a World War II unit.