Hope and Glory (1987)

Directed by John Boorman

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Hope and Glory has the same wartime sentimentality as Woody Allen’s Radio Days (1987) and Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One (1981).  It’s a nostalgic look at the details of life, shared amongst a small group of friends or family, during a time of great strife.  Though surrounded by a large-scale tragedy or the news of one, characters in these films seem to find the best of their circumstances, normalizing the grotesque nature of war because, I suppose, it’s in our nature to adapt to the way things are.

The Big Red One is a war film, but it treats the wartime journey like a summer away at camp.  The main character reminisces about this time in his life, focusing less on the brutality of war and instead on the brotherhood within his troop.  Radio Days has more in common with Hope and Glory.  Both are autobiographical depictions of the director’s youth.  Woody Allen’s film describes with heartfelt nostalgia what life was like during the war (when kids thought they had spotted Japanese submarines off the coast), and John Boorman’s film does much the same.  Each film is seen through the eyes of a child, old enough to figure out what’s going on but too young to find it meaningful or intimidating.

Hope and Glory was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction.  It was a major awards contender, in other words, but this is the type of film I don’t think has aged quite well.

There’s always a place at the table for a coming of age story, and the recent success of movies like The Florida Project, Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name can attest to that.  Still, the sentimentality of this film overshadows the text.  It’s like the best coming of age stories compel us to feel a certain way, and Hope and Glory just tells us how to feel.

The narration which begins the film and pops up every so often is a little too heavy-handed.  We watch a kid play in the garden but here his adult self explain to us the significance of this moment, in this case September 3, 1939, the day England became involved in World War II.

Watching a kid play in the garden on a normal afternoon but then stop once he realizes all the neighborhood activity has come to a halt is striking enough.  He then wanders inside where the radio booms with the announcement of the expansion of the war following Germany’s invasion of Poland.  The boy’s older sister comes down complaining of something trivial and cares little about the war, not understanding what we certainly now in hindsight, that this was the outbreak of the deadliest conflict in world history.

So that should work on its own, but instead we have to deal with the adult telling us what we can already see.  I found it jarring and tonally nonsensical, and for just about the rest of the movie I had checked out.

So that’s not fair to the movie as a whole, but I had a very hard time grabbing onto this film.  The story jumps all over the place, which is fine and conventional for nostalgic films like these, but I just never really cared one bit for it.  Going into the film I was expecting something along the lines of Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (also 1987), but EOTS this is very much not.

The children of Hope and Glory can’t comprehend the gravity of war.  To them it’s exciting, and any significant deviation from their everyday, mundane lives is surely a reason to celebrate, like a snow day cancelling school.

Bill, 9 years old, is our main character.  He plays with plastic soldiers in the garden and imagines himself up in the sky fighting the German pilots.  After the first rounds of bombs are dropped, Bill excitedly collects shrapnel that is still warm to the touch.  He will soon find himself involved with a gang of other children who run around the bombed ruins of neighbors’ houses, collecting artillery and other artifacts.  Bill only comes into conflict with them when they eventually ransack the ruins of his own home.

After their home burns down, Bill and his family move in with their grandparents in the countryside.  The days pass leisurely and without much conflict.  If there is any, it’s just the grandpa’s ego, always played for a joke, and Bill’s sister’s sudden pregnancy, but even that is wrapped up quickly.

Hope and Glory shows us the proximity of wartime England to life and and death, and yet it feels as though there are no real stakes.  After the first bombing raid, the active destruction is quickly normalized, but I’m sure that was the point, to show what normal life had become in this time and place.

Nostalgia has that effect on people, to normalize past behavior, whether our own or that of the people and world around us.  We look back on past tragedies, even massacres and eventually accept them as the way things were, no matter how sharp and painful it might’ve been at the time.  With distance most things become a little more muted, just a series of statistics and life lessons.

What we recall of our own lives seems to be just the building blocks of who we are now.  Boorman, for example, could look back on this moment in his life and see the raw pieces which would be sculpted into who he was as an adult.  He could could look back and observe the moments that had real significance, the memories that stuck with him, and disregard the rest.  For a child in this moment and time, there was less value assigned to the fear of death because there doesn’t seem to have been any such fear.  He’s like a guy walking a tightrope he believes to be three feet above the ground, and it’s only when he reaches the end that he realizes it was a thousand feet high.

Up Next: Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool [2017, Script Only], Blind Chance (1987), Five Easy Pieces (1970)

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