This film is based upon the memoir of Vera Brittain, an upper-middle class young woman fighting for the same opportunities available to her younger brother in pre World War One Great Britain. The story begins in the springtime of 1914 and we then progress through to around 1920, seeing events unfold through the eyes of Vera. It is a beautifully shot film and incredibly evocative of the time with a much slower pace to the story, a more romantic theme than a war one really. Anyone used to seeing movies with all out shooting, mass explosions and in your face armed combat should not go and see this; frankly such a viewer would probably feel rather bored by it all. What this film does have is heart and a deeply felt poignancy for an era and way of life that no longer exists, mainly because of the outbreak of The Great War.
At the start Vera is desperately trying to persuade her father to let her try for the Oxford entrance exam, whilst enjoying spending time with her brother and his chums on their last spring school holiday. Due to her gender and class, Vera’s parents expect her to be nothing more than educated and cultured enough to run a good house when she marries well. Vera’s fury toward this is palpable and she is only allowed to try for Oxford, after her brother Edward intercedes on his sister’s behalf. The university acceptance letter for Vera arrives on the day her brother and his friends leave Uppingham School. All the boys enjoy a passing out parade as members of the school Officer Training Corps (OTC). Ominously the newspapers report the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.
As soon as war is declared Edward Brittain and his fellow OTC pals immediately volunteer and sign up. Being only 18 and not at the age of majority, Edward needs Vera to petition their father to be allowed to join the army, and she is persuasive. So we see Vera travel to Oxford in the autumn of 1914 to begin her studies, with all the boys who should have gone along with her, going into uniform instead. This includes Roland Leighton, who through family connections is accelerated through training and onto the front, at his behest. Despite his obvious growing love for Vera, Roland feels an over-riding compulsion to do his duty for king and country. His class, upbringing and education have moulded Roland into feeling honour-bound into being of service to his nation. All the other boys in Vera’s social sphere feel exactly the same, and it is only when Roland gets his first leave home, do you glimpse that the realities of war are not as glorious as Roland was taught.
Realising the gravity of the war situation, Vera decides on becoming a nurse, feeling her studies are somewhat frivolous under the circumstances. She undergoes her training and then proceeds to tend the wounded soldiers sent back to England. Vera then transfers to France to feel nearer her brother and to nurse the injured behind the front lines. Ironically she finds herself attending to German soldiers’ wounds, but is also instrumental in returning her brother to full health as well. Vera’s recall from frontline nursing is very indicative of her class status and undoubtedly exasperates her. Whilst at home news comes of her brother’s death in Italy, where she thought the fighting was less intense.
Vera makes good on the promise she made to her brother at their final parting and returns to Oxford. Initially she does not thrive weighed down by all the ghosts around her. At the end her healing begins with a powerful statement at a demonstration and her personal resolve to ensure that those whom she loved and lost would not be forgotten.
I have not read Testament of Youth but if the film is a reasonable interpretation of it, then I think Vera succeeded in her quest to remember those lost in battle. The overwhelming sense I got from the film was that of a very innocent almost naive generation within Vera’s class in society. They were from another world where privilege cushioned members from a harsher reality. Women had servants to run the home, so were always immaculate and genteel and virtually a social adornment for the men, whose stiff upper lip was highly evident. The war shattered the illusionary world that Vera inhabited and became a great leveller of society in some respects. Officers from the upper classes fought alongside the sons of the working class. They faced the same bullets, barbed wire, shells and mustard gas and were wounded and killed in the same awful way. With her own wartime experiences Vera kicked against and helped bring down her world and the etiquettes she despised.
Vera Brittain’s book has been described as the voice of a generation and I can see why as the film is full of service, honour, loss and the futility of it. It is one person trying to comprehend and live with the aftermath of war and find some meaning to the ravages of conflict. This film (and presumably the book) espouses a generation of men who sacrificed their youth, vigour, optimism, hope and lives to fight for a cause that was bigger than them. In that respect they are the Glorious Dead and should be honoured and remembered for paying the ultimate price for our freedom. But as I listened to Vera’s impassioned statement at the end of the film, I was reminded of a poem I learned about in school which still affects me deeply. Dulce et Decorum Est is from Wilfred Owen a voice from the trenches, who I suspect came from a similar world to Vera Brittain. In those lines the hideous consequences of war are laid bare and show the utter lack of glory in drowning in your own bodily fluids after a gas attack, and every nationality on the battlefield faced the same horrific fate. Each new battle and counter-attack perpetuated a cycle of revenge with hardly any gain for either side. Vera Brittain came to realise this as did Wilfred Owen who implored future generations with this plea:
“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori”. (my translation-to die for one’s country is a great and noble thing).