This interesting and often touching portrait centers around one of England's best known war poets, Sigfried Sassoon, and reminds one of his native country's deliberate suppression of facts concerning the writer's conscientious objection against the war, preferring to keep him registered in the public's mind as someone mentally unbalanced. The story also deals (albeit not to any great extent) with the short and interesting relationship between Sassoon and younger war poet Wilfred Owen.

Neurologist and social anthropologist Dr. William Rivers (Jonathan Pryce), noted as one of the first psychiatrists applying Freudian methods, is resident at Craiglockart military hospital in Edinburgh where he treats and rehabilitates soldiers shellshocked in World War I. Rivers is approached directly by a representative of the military who would rather see the noted poet and medal-winning soldier Sigfried Sassoon (James Wilby) admitted to the hospital for treatment rather than being forced choose the alternative course of pursuing a court marshal and necessitate dealing openly with the complicated questions he has proposed. (In actual fact, it was author Robert Graves who dubiously convinced Sassoon that it would be wiser to commit himself to the hospital rather than pursue a court marshal from which his cause would reap little benefit.) Wilfred Owen (Stuart Bunce), another soldier and poet being treated in the hospital at the same time, must fight his own inner demons and decide whether or not he will return to the battlefield. A third soldier in residence, Billy Prior (Jonny Lee Miller), who hails from a working class background, has been rendered mute due to his experience as an officer among the horrors of war in the trenches. Dr. Rivers, although doing his best to carry out his duty as an officer in dealing with each patient's specific problems and readying them for their return to the front, is not able to escape what the ravages of war have done to these men. These daily confrontations, coupled with his own personal experiences, have scarred him deeply as well, but he tries to conceal this both from others and himself as best he can.

Adapted from Pat Barker's novel, the movie is the tale of four men, the effects war has upon them, and the world at a time when madness and insanity are indecipherable. All of the actors (especially Pryce and Wilby) excel in their performances and not only does Wilby physically resemble Sassoon, but Stuart Bunce is an amazing dead-ringer for poet Owen. Screenwriter Allan Scott acquired the rights to the book after reading the novel in 1991. As he says, "The book is a complex one as it has so many themes... the key one being regeneration and the fact that you can be redeemed." Director Gillies Mackinnon has done it justice.

A Short Saga of S. Sassoon

The war, they said, had warped the mind
of tormented Sassoon:
he told them all how wrong it was
to blow up the platoon.

The shrink, old boys, and officers
were not content with that:
they'd have to lock him safe away
if he would not combat.

His poetry was too well-known
to let him get away
and so they kept him very well
and blew Wilfred away.

© 1994-2006 The Green Hartnett