“If only knowing were the same as feeling.”
Based on the novel by Rebecca West, the film The Return of the Soldier is the story of a man who returns from WWI with severe shell shock resulting in memory loss. When the film begins, Chris’s wife Kitty (Julie Christie) and cousin Jenny (Ann Margret) are in the splendid Baldry home when they receive a visitor, Mrs. Margaret Grey (Glenda Jackson). The visitor is clearly uncomfortable, and at first it seems that perhaps this can be blamed on her poverty. But then Mrs. Grey breaks the news that Captain Chris Baldry is ill in hospital. Naturally Kitty and Jenny both wonder why the war office didn’t inform them, and Kitty takes her skepticism one step further by accusing Mrs. Grey of possessing ulterior motives.
Some of the mystery is solved when Kitty and Jenny travel to London to collect Captain Baldry (Alan Bates). He’s shell-shocked, and has lost the memory of the past 20 years of his life. He has no recollection of his wife or his marriage, and instead thinks he’s still in the throes of a mad passionate love affair with Margaret Grey–or Margaret Allington as he knew her 20 years ago when she was the daughter of an inn-keeper.
The Return of the Soldier is a stunningly beautiful, sad novel, and it’s translated to the screen very well in this film version with most of the book’s dialogue remaining intact. Cousin Jenny narrates the novel, so her insights and observations are gone for the film, and the script wisely enhances Kitty’s character slightly in recompense. Kitty is portrayed as a shallow woman who is humiliated by her husband’s rejection of their relationship. A few bitter moments show both Kitty’s anger (directed at her husband and Margaret) and snobbery (spitefully directed towards Margaret). The prejudice against shell shock is shown in others’ treatment of Baldry, and even Kitty in frustration argues that “if he just made an effort,” he’d remember. When a psychologist (Ian Holm) is called to the scene, he gently argues against a cure. Why bring Captain Baldry’s mind back across the abyss of time and memory when so much he has to remember will simply make him unhappy?
The Return of the Soldier is a marvelously realized film–the contrast of Baldry’s peaceful, magnificent estate against the horrors and ugliness of WWI are seen in powerful opposition to one another. The film sensibly concentrates on the visual–Baldry’s shock when looking in a mirror, and the way in which a train whistle startles him. The main characters are well cast, and although I imagined Margaret physically quite different, Glenda Jackson’s steely presence and moral courage capture the essence of the character. Alan Bates’ quietly restrained performance accentuates the pain of a kind, good-hearted man managing to drift through his daily obligations with just the vaguest recollection of who everyone is. Fans of the novel will not be disappointed. From director Alan Bridges.