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TV Review: Masterpiece Classics – “My Boy Jack”

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The film begins with a tight close-up of a stopwatch. Time and the Empire wait for no one. But Rudyard Kipling feels in control of both. His pale yellow Rolls Royce races across the English countryside to its goal – and he wins. The broad grin on Kipling’s face tells us this is what he expected – no less. His friend – no less than His Majesty King George V – congratulates him on his success. The end of the ‘run’ was Windsor Castle.

Inter-cut with the exuberant race scenes, we see a slight, bespectacled young man wait side by side with others in the hallway outside a recruitment office. The prospective recruits hand in their yellow forms. The enlistment forms parallel the color of the motor car in a bleak way. The gleaming yellow Rolls races expansively across the emerald countryside beneath a robin’s egg blue sky; but aside from the faded yellow forms held therein, the recruits, officer, and hall blend together in dark, muted greys. It is a stark contrast, and hints at later events. In some ways the film is about the imagination running headlong into reality. But, for now, blind optimism reigns.

The year is 1914, and British writer Rudyard Kipling was at the peak of his career. His most famous books and stories had been printed to worldwide acclaim. He was well regarded as a writer; he had won the Nobel prize for literature in 1907. Despite an early childhood marked with suffering, and almost to his surprise, he had formed a good life and a remarkable career on the strength of his imagination. And of course, it goes without saying, talent had something to do with it as well.

Throughout most of this film Kipling’s self-determination carries over into everything he does. A man who sought balance, as evidenced in his famous poem “If”, he evinced almost an excess of patriotic zeal. One cannot fault him; Kaiser Wilhelm’s troops were already in Belgium and France. England was in danger, and Kipling was among those who warned that war was inevitable. Otherwise a retiring personality, who shunned notoriety and even turned down honors such as the poet laureate of Britain and the knighthood, Kipling spoke stirringly at many recruitment rallies. If England was to defend Herself, patriotic duty and stoicism must replace doubt and fear.

As Kipling's was one of the primary voices in the call to arms, it could hardly be surprising, then, that the writer's only son Jack should seek to enlist. And so we have the beginnings of this film’s tale. We first meet John – Jack to his family – at a naval recruitment office. As his father, an early automobile enthusiast, speaks informally of his hobby with the King in Windsor Castle, Jack tries to read the letters on an eye chart for the officers. Having taken a few eye exams myself I don’t recognise the format of this one. One wonders if it’s any accident the first four letters spell out “HALT”. John Kipling, like his father, was severely myopic — in layman’s terms, “blind as a bat” without his spectacles.

The film continues to juxtapose father and son. While Jack Kipling is facing humiliation, being denied entry to the navy on account of his very poor eyesight, Rudyard Kipling chats with their King. King George V congratulates Rudyard Kipling “on breaking the three hour barrier in the Bateman’s-Windsor run”. The King then cautions Jack’s father against speaking too strongly about the possibility of war. There had been a write-up in that morning’s Times about a rally of 10,000 people being stirred by Kipling’s description of an England under German rule.

We have no way to know whether the King really consulted a fiction writer about matters of war or the populace, though they were indeed friends; but it’s a fact Kipling served on the War Office Press Bureau and had worked in conjunction with the War Propaganda Bureau. (Caution: links may contain spoilers.) It also can’t escape attention that any King would have been wise to recognise the power with words Kipling possessed, and his sway as a public speaker. Both Kipling’s grandfathers had been successful ministers, and he knew how to give a fiery sermon. In his case, he sought a ‘deeper conversion’ to patriotic defense, not to religion. His speeches played upon fear in order to bolster strength; only a master could attempt something so delicate and achieve it.

As the story continues, we next meet Caroline “Carrie” Kipling, Rudyard’s somewhat controversial American wife. She was a strong-willed, capable woman in an era when women were best regarded as wilting violets. We first see her defending home and hearth in a different way – shielding their home (called Bateman’s) against public intrusion. Two reporters stomp onto the private grounds, and Carrie shoos them off. She’s busy cutting a selection of flowers from the garden and won’t brook the offense. We see her softer side as she enters the Kipling home to arrange the fresh flowers before a portrait of her oldest child. Josephine Kipling, their firstborn, died of pneumonia in 1899 at aged seven, on a family trip abroad. Rudyard also had been stricken with the same illness; Carrie had had to keep their daughter's death from him until he was stronger. At that time her husband was already so famous newspapers worldwide carried the story. Ironically, the same Kaiser Wilhelm II who would later become Britain’s enemy had followed Kipling’s recuperation in the newspapers, and had sent Mrs. Kipling a telegram wishing him well.

It was not uncommon in those days, with rampaging influenza epidemics and without many of today’s medical interventions available, for parents to bury one or more of their children before the child could even reach adulthood. The Kiplings had already weathered such a tragedy. It’s said the death of their firstborn child changed the Kiplings and their marriage. The stoicism of the Edwardian times became a permanent guest in the Kipling household afterward. It was in this atmosphere even greater challenges arrived in what must have been quite the test of their spirit and endurance.

Mrs. Kipling and youngest daughter Elsie discuss Josephine ('Josie' to her family) as Carrie arranges the hearthside floral memorial. They ruminate upon their memories of the child's personality, and how many years have passed. "She would be twenty-two now," Elsie observes. Paterfamilias Kipling bounds into the tender scene; he's all energy. Kipling learns that his son has been denied entry to the navy. He’s apoplectic. “Wearing spectacles does not make one an invalid!” he protests. Completely failing to see – ironically – that the navy’s dismissal was prudent of his son’s safety, he urgently encourages Jack to “attack on another front”, and apply to the army. It seems imprudent to move forward on the issue, failing to heed the officers’ advice on his son’s fitness to serve in active combat. Yet suddenly Rudyard Kipling the proselytiser seems more a prophet. His prediction has come true: Britain declares war. And we learn they have an army of only 160,000 to match against Germany’s 1.5 million.

Things were suddenly more than urgent – they were absolutely dire. Carrie senses her husband’s keenness that their son fight in combat. She urges him to secure Jack a desk job at one of the many war offices. She doesn’t wish to shirk the family duty to help defend King and country. She seeks only to be the voice of reason, to halt the rush into the preconceived idea of how Jack should serve. She is merely being realistic; their son cannot be safe if he cannot see. Rather than trying to find his son a safer ‘pencil pushing’ position, though, Rudyard instead called in a favor with lifelong friend Lord Roberts, Colonel of the Irish Guards who arranged a commission for Kipling’s son Jack. Suddenly, the seventeen-year-old whose vision was so impaired as to be disabling, who had been declared unfit for combat by navy and army, was a second lieutenant. Before long, Jack and the men he led in the Irish Guards were shipped to the Western Front.

There was no concept then as we have now after the fact, of the sheer brutality of the front. It was nothing short of a meat grinder. Chemical weapons as well as artillery were employed by the Germans who had well fortified themselves in advance. The grim reality of life in the miles-long trenches is contrasted with the image those at home must have had, when Jack’s sister Elsie is seen preparing a care package for him. She is about to send him a pair of bedroom slippers. In reality the trenches were so constantly wet men lost their limbs to ‘trench foot’ and gangrene.

Lt John Kipling The Battle of Loos, the first big battle Jack's regiment was sent to fight in, was horrifically uneven. British troops fresh out of training were sent up against better equipped and more experienced German forces. By all accounts Jack Kipling was a capable and considerate officer. He was intelligent and he was fair. But this was not a gentleman's war. Fairness and capability had little to do with outcome. It’s no secret that the plotline of "My Boy Jack" hinges on the 1915 Battle of Loos, and Jack’s disappearance during it. The ensuing search by Jack’s parents profoundly affected them. They had to take it upon themselves, and attempt all they could, to discover whether he was an amnesiac among hospital wounded somewhere, or possibly a prisoner of war, or… the worst. (I will leave the denouement for your discovery.) The battle had been so chaotic and smoky and panic-filled, even his own troops were not guaranteed to have seen everything. That this is based upon true events drives home the poignancy. These were real people who lived through these things once upon a time. It was no story.

“Do you want a story?” the Rudyard Kipling of this portrayal often asks. In good times and especially in bad, the film and the real Kipling (judging by his autobiography) relied upon imagination to see him through. He believed in its power to transcend, so mightily, that he even sought to pull a nation out of danger with his vivid speeches. By the film’s telling (and the book and play it is based upon), it never even occurred to Rudyard (or to Jack, or most others before the war) that this might be the filthiest war the 20th century world could remember. It never shadowed their footsteps at all until the troops had marched forward.

By film’s end, it’s clear the reality of chaos has set in. The stopwatch is hardly useful, as one of the world’s most famous writers goes racing again from Bateman’s to Windsor. When Jack was a child, his father’s famous poem “If” had advised him: “If you can fill the unforgiving minute / With sixty seconds' worth of distance run, / Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, / And – which is more – you'll be a Man, my son!” Rudyard Kipling’s reliance upon order, his certainty that to give one’s all is all there is has been shaken by the film’s end. Filling the “unforgiving minute” as well as one can in order to win the world seems a Pyrrhic victory. Kipling retraces his prior route, half-heartedly racing through the same scenery, but the view is very different than it was.

This film, originally produced by Britain’s ITV, debuted there in time for Remembrance Day. It brings to mind the effect of memory in what has as yet only existed in our present day imagination; it serves as a gently placed wreath for those who served their ultimate. They should not be forgotten. This film’s unsentimental yet poignant look at the realities of war stays with one long after viewing. This is a top flight production and all in it are to be commended.

David Haig, familiar to most through his role as groom Bernard Delaney in Four Weddings and a Funeral, stars as Rudyard Kipling. Haig also wrote the stage and screen plays. He has produced a stirring work. Kim Cattrall proves herself an actress capable of escaping Sex and the City typecasting in her able performance as the strong-willed Carrie Kipling. Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter and Equus fame has the title role of Jack Kipling. Radcliffe’s performance is subtly powerful.

"My Boy Jack" debuts on American television as a Masterpiece Classic, Sunday evening, April 20, 2008, on PBS. Check local listings.

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