Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Tumbledown (1988)

After watching The People's Portrait on Sunday evening which saw badly scarred Falklands veteran and inspiration Simon Weston having his portrait painted for The National Gallery after winning from a poll decided by the public fir the first time, I thought it was time to take another look at what is likely to be the definitive dramatic take on fighting that conflict; Charles Wood's 1988 drama Tumbledown, based on the exploits of another near fatally injured soldier, Robert Lawrence, MC.

Firstly, I must try to answer the inevitable complaint many have with the non linear structure of the piece; I think the crux of the film is to actually show the battle scene at the end. They do this principally because it shows us the man we've just spent nearly 2 hours with, who we've watched endure the most extreme physical and mental hardship in the wake of his trauma, who we've admired and empathised with for his bravery, actually got his near fatal wound by being very foolhardy in the field. I simply cannot imagine the film not having that pivotal scene at the very end. Not at all.

The whole point of Wood's characterisation of Lawrence is he is a man born into a military family who loved being ''a real soldier'' but had to come to terms with the schoolboy fantasies he had once he faced the realities of being a warrior, thanks to the experience of the Falklands, the trauma itself and  the equally harsh after care he endured, complete with the inefficiencies the NHS at the time had in treating military casualties,  something which the film captures with spectacular heart rending and uncompromising results. 

Perhaps the film's biggest message occurs when Lawrence attends the ceremony for the returning soldiers and had to sit there in his wheelchair and miss all of it because he cannot see past those standing in front of him. "Its as if they'd rather we didn't come back" he says bitterly. This for me, is the main point of Wood's script. In reality after the conflict, the nation had changed their minds; no more flag waving patriotism as the boys set sail, they now decreed it to being nothing more than a publicity stunt for Thatcher, and the heroes they had once pledged their devotion to were now treated and derided as little more than duped puppets or a fad, a moment of jingoism not too dissimilar to the 2012 Olympics and Jubilee. Seeing the reality of the dead and the wounded - or indeed the fit and healthy -  soldiers was something that much of the public did not want to face. It was just too stark to fit in with their views and, as the film shows, they could not comprehend why such men were 'angry' and hold a flat indifference to their experiences. The film all too painfully shows Lawrence struggling to get people to understand his situation; his doctors, his family and his friends, his nurses,  all people who cannot come to terms because they didn't experience it. 

It may have been a war that was made to win votes, but the soldiers involved of course fought it as if it was just as important as those in WWII or any other conflict, because in war there are no half measures. 

So ultimately, the film's other tragedy is borne from this notion Wood puts forward; that no one will understand the Falkland veterans, that they are an embarrassing and all too real spectre at the feast who don't fit in with the widely held view that it was all a bit of a flag waving farce. This view is clearly held by the rather annoying middle class couple to whom Lawrence relates his story too. They later discuss what a war hero should be and find both he and his friend played by Paul Rhys lacking, because they don't perceive the Falklands to have been heroic, they agree with the vote winning ideal and belief that it was all for nothing. But at least they entertained them - their daughter remained in her bedroom, with her parents pretending she was out. We see that it is because of such views that Lawrence will always be inextricably linked to the Rhys character - a man who, as the restaurant owner Tug, says to him in the pre-conflict scenes, "Isn't really your friend" - simply because of a shared experience and the perceived notion that only veterans truly understand each other, when in actual fact they are both all too aware that they had such wildly dissimilar experiences of Tumbledown. It is because they at least were both there that they are united together, for better or worse, with unspoken reservations and beliefs lingering between them.

Full praise to Charles Wood for creating what is perhaps his most stark and affecting anti war polemic (and he'd created several from Charge of The Light Brigade and How I Won The War through to A Breed of Heroes and The Long Day's Dying) It is one that is particularly for this modern age and came about just 6 years after the war, challenging some 10.5 million viewers who tuned in to watch. Praise to too Colin Firth, one the finest actors of his class and generation, giving the most amazing performance here as Lawrence. Praise to them both for the warts and all depiction of Lawrence, a man who enjoyed the brutality of war because it felt like the gung ho adventures he was brought up on, yet he equally feels embittered by the way the war chewed him up and spat him out.

A must see if ever there was one, it depicts the true unwinnable battle between harsh reality and perceived views that occurs when a nation turns its back on those who know.

The real Lawrence collected his MC with his parents

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