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Skullion Goes Forth,
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This review is from: All the King's Men [DVD] (DVD)
All the King's Men is a fascinating if often horrifying portrayal of a little-known episode of the First World War.
David Jason takes a great part as Captain Frank Beck, who has trained a group of workers from the Royal estate at Sandringham into a company of soldiers. This role is very reminiscent of his earlier one as Skullion, the head porter in Porterhouse Blue. Both are essentially "good and faithful servants", firmly committed to the values of their social betters, perhaps to a greater degree than many of the latter themselves. His face is a picture to behold when he arrives at Gallipoli to discover the real conditions there, and perhaps the dawning realisation that said betters may have let him down.
With only a few lapses, the atmosphere of the period is well captured. Did anyone else cringe at Beck's question "Why are we here if not to prove ourselves as men?" I would probably count as "unmanly" by 1915 standards, but would have sought at least a slightly more practical reason. Beck displays a similar attitude earlier on, when he is utterly terrified that he may be denied the opportunity to lead his men into action, despite being clearly too old for active service. The scene where the 12yo telegraph boy, proudly showing off his new uniform, is upstaged by his 14yo pal who by lying about his age has acquired a real Army one is also only too believable for the time, as is Beck's remark that the young boy (whose real age he knows) is "more a man than I will get to be" if he himself is not allowed to go to war. Likewise the mobbing of the pacifist who was initially mistaken for a wounded soldier. His injuries were actually inflicted by real soldiers whom he had been treating in hospital.
Queen Alexandra makes a revealing comment when someone expresses doubt as to whether the pacifist was truly a coward, saying "We are all compelled to believe that he was a coward", presumably because admitting the possibility of any other motive might lead her and others into thinking socially unacceptable thoughts. The Queen Mother gets a number of memorable lines, notably when her son, King George V, tells her that "Kitchener is confident of victory". She responds "Let us hope that his confidence costs us less in Turkey than it has in France". It is rather hinted that she is more than a little sceptical about the whole war, but carefully concealing this as it is part of her royal duty to maintain morale. The King takes this attitude even further, when toward the end he cautions the clergyman who has sought out the real fate of the "Sandringhams" not to say anything that would contradict the morale-boosting story promoted by the War Office. Shades of "When legend becomes truth, print the legend."
There is probably more than a little legend in the film itself, though excusably so given the paucity of firm facts. The theory that the men were "executed" after capture by the Turks cannot be verified. The Turks were indeed disinclined to take prisoners, but any killing is as likely to have been done during the battle ("shot while putting their hands up") as afterwards in cold blood. In particular, the portrayal of Beck's death is highly doubtful, since what evidence there is (admittedly inconclusive) suggests that he was killed in the fighting rather than murdered. But the closing shot, as the men advance to their deaths through the mist, is evocative of that unforgettable final scene in Blackadder Goes Forth.
One final twist, which I gather is historically accurate. The sole survivor, reappearing at the end disfigured but alive, owes his survival to being left for dead and found later by a German unit, waking up in their military hospital. The only "Sandringham" ever to see the place again owes his life to the evil Hun. A suitably ironic note on which to end.