The Diary of an Unknown Soldier
- 17 mins
IN THE mid 1950s, I underwent compulsory military service in Britain. Managing to avoid being sent on a draft to fight the Mau-Mau in Kenya, I landed a clerical post in Canterbury, Kent, where I fortunately met a group of people running an amateur theatre group called ‘Playcraft’. This group regularly staged a series of very clever productions in the small living room of Alan and June Gray - with Alan and Anne Pope, Stan and Phyllis Mercer, and other friends who acted, helped with designs and sets, and invited the local audience to the twenty or so seats tightly crammed into the room. A drama student bitten by the ‘acting bug’ in London before my military service, I acted in several of Playcraft’s productions - including in R.C. Sheriff’s anti-war drama, Journey’s End, set in the trenches during World War I. Immediately following my release from the army, I was bitten by another - amateur filmmaking - ‘bug’, and acquired a Bolex spring-driven 8mm camera. Together with the patient ‘Playcraft’ members, I produced a series of mini ‘test’-dramas, and then my first full-length 8mm amateur film, ‘The Web’, a saga set in France during the final days of World War II, depicting the attempts of an isolated German soldier to escape the attentions of the French ‘Maquis’. Although sensitively acted by the members of Playcraft, the filmic and dramaturgical elements were clichéd and heavy-handed - except for a grainy shot taken behind a German soldier inside a pill-box, preparing to fire. This one scene, which looks exactly like footage from a German newsreel, was a precursor of what was to come.
The amateur film movement was very strong in Britain at this time, with many hundreds of individual filmmakers and ciné clubs competing for the annual “Ten Best” competition (the amateur “Oscars”), organized and sponsored by the Amateur Ciné World magazine, under the editorial guidance of Gordon Malthouse, and subsequently Tony Rose. This competition drew entries from all over the world, and was a wonderful inspiration, not least of all because the winning films were shown at the London National Film Theatre, and then toured the country under the auspices of the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers, which made archive and distribution copies of each of these films.
The failure of ‘The Web’ (which did, quite undeservedly, win Four Stars in the 1956 ‘Ten Best’ competition), and of a subsequent film, ‘The Field of Red’, set during the American Civil War - which was not only bad, but somehow (fortunately) disappeared - did not deter me. By 1959, I was working as an assistant film editor at ‘World Wide Pictures’, a documentary film company; and fortunate to have as colleagues many of the finest surviving filmmakers and editors from the days of the GPO and Crown Film Units - including the editor John Trumper, who had worked with John Grierson (and who later edited ‘Privilege’). Also with me at World Wide was Kevin Brownlow, a young filmmaker who was already making a great impact with his invaluable restoration work on Abel Gance’s masterpiece, ‘Napoleon’. Kevin was also steadily working on his own master-work, ‘It Happened Here’, a film depicting what would have happened if Germany had won World War II and occupied Britain. At the same time - with assistance from what had become the Playcraft Film Unit, Roger Higham from my army days in Canterbury, and a friend from London, Brian Robertson, who was to play the leading role - I was preparing ‘The Diary of an Unknown Soldier’.
In 1979, American writer and film teacher Joseph Gomez (then at Wayne State University in Michigan) wrote a book on my work, entitled Peter Watkins, published in Boston by Twayne Publishers. I will let Joe’s chapter on my earlier films continue the story [note that all quotations attributed to me come from that early period in my career] :
“The Diary of an Unknown Soldier (1959) is a remarkable amateur film by any standard, but from the perspective of hindsight, its importance to Watkins' development as a filmmaker cannot be overestimated. Unlike most American directors who were rarely involved in the amateur film scene, British directors often used their amateur films as stepping stones to professional careers. John Schlesinger, Ken Russell, and Peter Watkins were all hired by the BBC on the basis of their amateur films, and many of these films reveal much about their later styles as feature filmmakers. The use of crowds, for instance, in John Schlesinger's first amateur film, Black Legend (1948), is markedly similar to the construction of crowd scenes in Far From the Madding Crowd (1967); and Ken Russell's camera choreography and experiments with music to define mood and reinforce theme appear as early as Amelia and the Angel (1957). In The Diary of an Unknown Soldier, however, Watkins initiated a style of filmmaking which he has consistently developed and experimented with in all of his professional films. The Diary of an Unknown Soldier deals with some of the same themes found in Journey's End, but whereas Sherriff allowed the conventions of the stage to limit his action to a claustrophobic dugout in the British trenches before St. Quentin, Watkins refused to be constrained by comparable cinematic conventions. Even at this stage of his career, he was quick to understand the nature of his medium; in this film, he freed the camera from the limitations of a fixed vantage point and forced it to take part in the action so that he could create strikingly realistic, almost newsreel-like, effects and directly involve the viewing audience in the events it was witnessing. The Diary of an Unknown Soldier, however, is not limited strictly to techniques of realism. It contains a curious, almost uneasy, mixture of expressionist and documentary styles, and one suspects that the financial and physical limitations that Watkins faced because of equipment and location problems played a major part in the evolution of this syncretistic approach. Synchronous sound was not possible for financial reasons; little of the surrounding countryside near Canterbury resembled the trenches of World War I, and a cast of fifteen to twenty had to give the illusion of being five times that number.
A carefully written script for the film existed before any footage was shot; and, after the film was edited, Watkins added an optical soundtrack of realistic effects and a commentary - presumably from the diary of the nameless protagonist who is about to face the front for the first time. The opening line of the film, "last day of my life," establishes the narrator's bizarre perspective and even suggests the film's expressionist mood. The remainder of the commentary complements and clarifies the film's visuals, and the rapid pace at which Watkins himself speaks these lines creates a sense of relentless urgency that reflects the protagonist's constant condition of tension. Occasionally, the pace is a bit too frantic. As a result, some images (trees metamorphosing into bayonets) seem to be a cliché imitation of Sergei Eisenstein's techniques. Also, certain overly emotional sections from the commentary ("The most terrible thing about war is not just the fact that we have to kill men so much like ourselves, but that we have to hate them and keep on hating them ... It seems so bloody pointless. We go forward to those guns. God only knows what will happen to us. God only knows.") reduce rather than increase the impact of the film's message. In all of his future films, with the exception of Evening Land (1977), Watkins would employ some form of narration, but never again in this obvious, olidactic manner.
The strength of The Diary of an Unknown Soldier rests with its striking visual impact. Much of the film, photographed by Watkins himself, consists of close-ups and extreme close-ups of the protagonist or what the viewer sees from his perspective. These shots are noteworthy because of Watkins’ unique framing. He frequently frames the top of the shot below the hairline rather than cropping at the top of the head in what is often called a "Warner Brothers close-up." Indeed, Watkins intentionally creates disturbing shots in this film by ignoring a standard rule which indicates that a proper balance for large close-ups is achieved by framing the subject's eyes just above the imaginary horizontal center. Throughout his early career, Watkins experimented with this framing and by the time he made Punishment Park (1970), he had come to definite conclusions about the framing of close-up shots. "Normally the weight of most camera and most television shots is down-loaded. You always see air over the heads [in Hollywood films] ... I close the air off over the head to stop the strength of the scene going out. You can see more of the body. The whole thing is [more] solid, and you are forced to look at the person - into their eyes ."
Most of the other shots of the soldiers in the film are close-middle shots, and the frequency of this kind of shot was probably dictated in part by the limited number of cast members and by problems with location. The sequence depicting soldiers leaping into the mud of "no man's land" as they advance toward the German lines, for instance, was filmed in a cast member's backyard, after an eight-foot-square plot had been dug up and hosed down with water. Watkins, however, had more in mind than simply making do with what was available. By moving the camera in an adventurous manner, he made it a “participant” in the battle sequences. As Tony Rose, Britain's foremost amateur film authority, wisely observed, “... he went in close with his camera, filled the frame with writhing bodies and hurtling feet, allowed the lens to be jostled and jumped over and practically trodden into the mud. The result was magnificent and it looked like war as the soldier sees it." This aspect of the film impressed others as well, and Watkins won an “Oscar” in the Ten Best Amateur Films Competition of 1959.”