PG-13 | 1h 53min | Drama, Comedy | 1987
If you’re familiar with cricket, you’ll have some inkling of the “googly,” a delivery that bowlers (in baseball, the pitcher) use to deceive batsmen (batters) by pretending to spin the ball one way, while spinning it the other.
British screenwriter-director John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory” is his cinematic googly. It pretends to be all sad and serious, while having a good laugh.
It uses the comedic analogy of a “game” or “play” to consider how we cope with catastrophe. In the film, the setting of that “game” is England during the Blitz of World War II, played principally through the eyes of 9-year-old Billy (Sebastian Rice Edwards) and his mom, Grace (Sarah Miles). Boorman based Billy’s experiences, loosely, on his own as a child in war-torn England.
The war rains bombs, planes, balloon-airships, parachuting pilots, and shrapnel on Billy and his family who find ways to keep smiling on (almost) their own terms. Billy’s dad Clive (David Hayman) volunteers but ends up doing nothing more heroic than “typing for England” as a war-office clerk. Billy’s sister Dawn (Sammi Davis) finds love in the arms of a Canadian soldier. And Billy discovers the wonders of countryside life in the care of grumpy Grandfather George (Ian Bannen).
The family preserves their idiosyncrasies, even amidst chaos. Like children in an earthquake, calmed by the mere sight of their toys, the family clings to their music, their singing, tea and cake on the patio, cricket on the lawn, an afternoon out fishing, or an evening out boating. It’s as if the war fails at being the spoilsport it wanted to be. It may upend their lives, but it won’t redefine their way of living, not if they can help it.
Historians and journalists present war as a win or a loss. Boorman presents war as theater, as distraction. Or it could be entertainment that lies in the “little wins,” even when hounded by loss. Ignorant of the devastation of bombing, Dawn giggles at how lovely the fireworks (bombs) are. Billy’s thrilled at how shrapnel he wrests from a wall is still hot.
Billy’s neighborhood is swept up in a moment of magic as a stray balloon-airship glides, almost playfully, above their roofs. As air-strike warnings ring through schools, kids holler with excitement in underground bunkers, don gas masks, and noisily recite the “nine-times table.” To them, the drill’s nothing more than a game.
Billy braves his way into a gang of rowdy schoolboys, ransacking wrecked houses, hunting for pots to crack or pans to clang. The families have deserted. So, far from feeling guilty, the boys have a blast.
Billy, however, is forced to see things differently when he stumbles upon them trashing another house. This one isn’t as fun: It’s his!
One boy grabs an antique clock from the rubble, turns it over to see if it does anything, then bangs it to the floor, shouting, “rubbish!” Here we have a comic reminder of vandals, in peacetime or war, who destroy what they don’t understand, precisely because they don’t understand.
Escapism or Another Way of Facing RealityWar as farce is as old as the movies, yet even celebrated screenwriters and directors struggle to pull it off. Boorman does, splendidly.
Because they see little or no killing and maiming, the kids tend to see war as nothing more than drama, no more real than a dream, oozing an impermanence that’s comforting.
The film has a beginning and an end, but no real plot. Boorman’s film feels more like a slice of life than a story.
Is all of this a falsehood? To many who misread comedy that’s cleverly handled, it probably is. But have you ever enjoyed a game by playing it straight, disclosing every ruse to a rival?
Billy’s dad tells him, “a good batsman will spot a googly, a good bowler will hide it.” Billy delights in the mischief of cricket because he gets to be both, batsman and bowler.
Billy’s family doesn’t deny war’s horror. They accept it in the same way they apply their sense of fair play to a game. You win some, you lose some.
Like children doodling when berated, they use their imagination to numb realities too harsh to bear. Their faces turn to the bright side, even amid loss or separation or pain, not because it’s the natural thing to do. It isn’t. But it’s the only way they know to survive.
A well-wisher, Mac, ignores dozens of possessions ruined in Grace’s just-bombed home, but brightens at the one thing still usable (her sewing machine), and salvages it because it’s “not too bad.”
Billy’s sense of wonder and fun seems to elbow out the harshness of war, and its seemingly irrevocable impact on men, women, and children. The film asks if such an impact is indeed irrevocable.
Can we still piece together our lives with the tools of our imagination, and our ideals of hope? Or are we condemned to die the slow (or instant) deaths that enemies script for us? Can we, during or after trauma, reclaim laughter, as children do?
In a hilarious scene Clive, briefly back from duty, triumphantly presents the family with a beat-up can of German jam, only to see them recoil at mention of the word “German.” It must be poison! Or a bomb!? Dawn (who hates jam anyway) chooses the high moral ground. She won’t taste it, on principle because it isn’t English jam. But as Clive teasingly swallows spoon after spoon, the family sheepishly swarms the can to laughingly relish the jam, because it’s simply jam.
That’s Boorman laughing at how we all sometimes overdo things. How odd it would be if we don’t laugh along with him.