Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Diary of an Unknown Soldier (Watkins, 1959)

Apart from two pieces of disowned juvenilia, The Diary of an Unknown Soldier is Watkins' first film. Just under twenty minutes in length, it is a sometimes captivating, sometimes strident effort that is worth watching in order to see a critical aspect of Watkins' later films beginning to emerge. Whereas many films present war to us as faceless mobs clashing against each other, Watkins is deeply concerned with the place of the individual within the violence. Other films have made efforts to humanize the soldier. What perhaps sets Watkins apart is that his characters are not particularly charismatic, powerful or interesting. They are the people who would be among the war statistics released after a particularly deadly battle. If a news report said '23 British Soldiers Killed', the protagonist of this particular short film might very well be #16. However, Watkins takes us inside his mind and relays the fears that soldiers cannot normally express openly. He asks us to consider the ordinary man who pays the violent price for decisions made by those in command - the ones that are normally the central characters in war films. The film ends before the soldier goes to battle; but, through his daydreams, we see the outcome that he imagines as he considers the possibility of his fast-approaching death. The film has nifty composition and editing, signaling the growth of an emerging talent. Unfortunately, it also has poor sound quality with stock effects and a voice-over that pushes far too hard for emotional impact, instead becoming off-putting. Nonetheless, those who want to know more about the artistic development of the man behind Punishment Park and The War Game will definitely want to check it out.



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