Pros: Unique perspective on war; excellent performances; good period detail
Cons: A few of the small moments of the film work less well than others
Everything about life looks quite different from the vantage point of an eight-year-old, but try to imagine what a young boy's take would be on living in London during the Battle of Britain. John Boorman's semi-autobiographical Hope and Glory gives us that perspective with a delicacy and exquisite sense of humor that make the end result a delight for film viewers.
Historical Background: John Boorman was born in 1933. His first professional experience with the film industry was writing movie reviews for radio and the print media. In 1955, he took a job as an assistant film editor with the BBC. After directing a few documentaries, Boorman made his debut feature film, Catch Is If You Can (1965). That effort earned him a trip to Hollywood, where he directed two films starring Lee Marvin, Point Blank (1967) and Hell in the Pacific (1968). He then returned to England to direct Leo the Last (1970), which earned Boorman a Best Director award from Cannes. Boorman then reached a kind of zenith in his career with the brilliant Deliverance (1972). Boorman then had three less than stellar outings with Zardoz (1974), Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), and Excaliber (1981). Boorman returned to form, a bit, with the flawed but intriguing The Emerald Forest (1985). That led next to Boorman's semi-autobiographical film, Hope and Glory (1987), about the British home front during World War II, from a boy's perspective. It earned five Oscar nominations, though it was beat out across the board by the stellar The Last Emperor. Boorman's more recent films have included The General (1998) and The Tailor of Panama (2001).
The Story: In a London neighborhood during World War II, a terrible kind of roulette game results in one or another of the nearly identical homes being destroyed by the German bombs. In the schools, the children practice marching into the bomb shelters and doing their nine-times table with their gasmasks in place. In the Rowan household, the father, Clive (David Hayman), signs up to do his part for king and country, leaving behind his wife, Grace (Sarah Miles), to tend to the three children, fifteen-year-old Dawn (Sammi Davis), eight-year-old Bill (Sebastian Rice-Edwards), and little Sue Rowan (Geraldine Muir). Before departing, Clive teaches his son how to throw a "googlie," a tricky bowling delivery sure to baffle opponents in a cricket match. The story is told from the vantage point of young Bill Rowan, a lad old enough to understand generally what is happening, but not its import. At first, the nightly air raids are exciting and trips out to the makeshift shelter exhilarating, but it's not long before the sleepy youngsters tire of the game. Soon, the family is spending some of the nights in a closet under the stairs.
At first, Grace wants to ship the children off to Australia, for safekeeping during the war, but she relents at the last minute, preferring to keep the family together. Bill is thrilled, not wanting to miss out on all the great fun of war! As a result, Bill is there to witness the landing of a German flier (Charley Boorman), forced to parachute into a neighborhood flower garden after a plane is shot down. The Luftwaffe pilot calmly lights a cigarette and waits to be arrested. Bill joins a gang of young boys, all equally fatherless, and helps them scavenge for shrapnel and unexploded shells. He also observes his teen sister's burgeoning sexuality and rebelliousness, as she sneaks out at night to attend jitterbug dances with the Canadian soldiers stationed in the neighborhood. He's a bit confused when he chances upon Dawn and her Canadian boyfriend, Cpl. Bruce Carrey (Jean-Marc Barr), in carnal embrace. Bill is also confused when his mother expresses regrets for having married Clive rather than Clive's brother, Uncle Mac (Derrick O'Connor). Grace stays true to her husband, however, while he's off at war. Clive makes it home on leave, bringing with him a can of German jam that floated up on shore after a German ship had been sunk. Grace and the children are initially afraid to try it. "It could be poisoned. They know how much we like jam."
After the family home burns down one day, the Rowans are forced to move into the countryside and take up residence with Grace's mother (Annie Leon) and cantankerous father (Ian Bannen). Bill's grandparents have a home on the Thames and the eccentric grandfather teaches Bill how to fish and pole the riverboat. One day, grandpa sends Bill and Sue out fishing with firm orders not to come back empty-handed. They have no luck and are in despair of returning home until a German bomb suddenly lands in the river and the children are able to collect the fish killed by the blast. Dawn discovers that she's pregnant after her soldier-boy has gone off to fight. When he learns the news, Cpl. Carrey rushes to her side, but is later arrested for going AWOL. Bill strikes out his grandpa one day with his wicked googlie and, later, his father when the latter comes home on leave. After a thrilling summer of renewal in the country, Bill is reluctant to return to school come autumn. Bill's fortunes are bailed out still again by a German bomb, when it levels the schoolhouse, furnishing Bill with some stolen days of extended vacation.
Themes: This film's theme is the magical ability of naive imagination and youthful optimism to reshape devastating circumstances into an exquisite myth of hope and glory. When a society has to confront natural or unnatural catastrophes, adults ruminate, struggle, and anticipate the worst, but for children of a certain age, any such deviation from the routine of daily living can be quite thrilling, at least at first. In the London of World War II, Bill Rowan discovers that nightly bombing runs mean opportunities to find treasures like hot shrapnel the next morning. Cues as subtle as the sudden stopping of lawnmowers as war is announced take on inordinate meaning in the life of an eight-year-old. Here, war is seen through rose-colored glasses as a kind of grand adventure.
Production Values: What makes this film unique is its odd perspective on the issue of war. Generally, war films are designed to project either the glory of war or its horrors. Here's a film that looks upon wartime from the vantage point of a starry eyed boy, as a matter of simple nostalgia. The tone of this film is reminiscent of Fellini's great trip down memory lane, Amarcord (1973). For Boorman, this film is quite a deviation from form, as he had never shown this kind of sentimentality in previous films. He handles the coming-of-age genre expertly, carefully limiting the vignettes and the point of view to what an eight-year-old might reasonably experience.
The recreation of both the look and the feel of wartime London was carried out painstakingly for this film. From the sets, to the music, to the radio broadcasts, the vocabulary, and references to rationing and other wartime circumstances, everything is just as it should be. The period detail feels fully authentic.
The performances are spot-on, among both the children and the adults. Sebastian Rice-Edwards makes a convincing and likable protagonist. Little Geraldine Muir is adorable as the younger sister. Sammi Davis provides perhaps the best performance of the film as the teenager sewing her wild oats. There's a wonderful scene that she shares with her mother, played by the talented Sarah Miles, in which the teen declares that she just can't do without her boyfriend. The mother advises her to follow her heart's desire if she loves her soldier, obviously hoping that her daughter won't repeat her own mistake of making "the safe" decision. The teenager's response utterly deflates the momentary sentimentality: "Who said anything about love?" Sammi Davis had previously appeared in Mona Lisa (1986). Sarah Miles is an accomplished actress who has appeared in The Servant (1963), Blowup (1966), and Ryan's Daughter (1970). Ian Bannen gives a nice character performance as the grandfather. Throughout his career, Boorman liked using his own talented family in his films. Here, he found cameo roles for his son Charley (who starred in The Emerald Forest) and actress daughter Katrine (who appeared in Excalibur). The way I figure it, it's not nepotism if they do a good job.
Bottom-Line: The MGM DVD is pretty basic with respect to extras, providing only the original theatrical trailer. You can listen to the soundtrack in either English or French. The subtitle options are French or Spanish. Five Oscar nominations (best picture, director, cinematography, set decoration, and screenplay) were just the tips of the iceberg for this film. It did even better elsewhere, winning the Golden Globe for Best Picture, Best Picture from the Boston and Los Angeles Film Critic Societies, and thirteen BAFTA awards. The British Film Institute ranks this film as the ninetieth best British film all-time. This is a delightful film and well worth viewing.