“If our brief is to tell the truth but a truth that is bearable to the British people, do we dilute the figures?”
Whenever I watch films concerning WWI, I always find myself wondering what sort of madness gripped the world for this period of time. Not that wars have become more acceptable or less absurd, but the depictions of trench warfare of WWI always bring out the sheer insanity of war, and then, of course, there’s the death toll of around 20 million.
The film My Boy Jack is the story of one soldier who was killed in WWI. The soldier is 18-year old Jack, the only son of Nobel Prize winning British writer Rudyard Kipling (David Haig). Directed by Brian Kirk (who also plays the role of Kipling), the film centers on the Kipling family dynamic. Father Rudyard Kipling hobnobber with the King can’t wait for the shooting party to begin in France. His attitude spreads to his only son, Jack (Daniel Radcliffe), and the two of them agree that Jack can’t miss the action.
Jack, however, is rejected by the military for his extremely poor eyesight. While some families would use their position and influence to excuse their children from war, Rudyard Kipling pressures the army to take his son. Jack is as blind as a bat without his spectacles, and military personnel grasp the inherent danger of placing Jack in charge of enlisted men, but Kipling, who was never a military man, coerces and bamboozles his acquaintances until he gets what he wants–his son in a uniform.
My Boy Jack illustrates the peer pressure afoot in wartime. There’s one scene of Kipling speaking and inciting his audience at a war rally, and there’s one great scene when Jack is drinking in a pub with his best friend, Ralph. Although the subject of Jack’s lack of uniform is not addressed directly, Jack obviously feels very uncomfortable and out-of-place surrounded by soldiers while he’s in civilian clothes.
Thanks to his father’s determination and influence, Jack is commissioned in the Irish Guards. There’s a firm hierarchy afoot with 17 year-old Jack in charge of a platoon of Irish volunteers, and we see that ever-popular tradition of the upper classes herding the peasants into war and slaughter. One segment of the film focuses on Jack’s determination to improve his marksmanship, and of course, there’s a bitter irony here as the training these military schools provide (his friend Ralph attends Sandhurst) implies that there’s some special skill required for being a target on the fields of France.
Even though Rudyard Kipling was privy to the horrendous casualties lists (one day leaves 458 officers and 11,161 enlisted dead), he still urges his son on. This, of course, raises the question why do parents feel it’s their ‘duty’ to pressure their beloved children to enlist? What is it about a flag and rabid patriotism that casts the normal aspects of responsible parenting aside as children are urged and pressured to cast sanity to the winds and throw their young lives at hopeless lost causes? The film does an excellent job of portraying Kipling as a saber-rattling, bastion of the British Empire–an armchair warrior who lives subliminally through the imagined future heroic exploits of his son, and of course, Jack, conditioned to live up to his father’s notions of the glories of Empire, doesn’t struggle against his father’s illusions, but instead buys all the patriotic notions of war hook, line and sinker.
The film juxtaposes some great scenes of Kipling’s gorgeous country home in Burwash, East Sussex with the muddy trenches in France along with Jack Kipling’s inglorious death at the Battle of Loos the day after his 18th birthday. When the Kipling family first learn that Jack is missing, they begin an exhaustive search to find him.
With its tight focus on the Kipling family, many issues raised by the film pass unchallenged. While the Kipling family suffered a devastating tragedy, this tragedy was shared by millions of families who did not have the means to search for their lost sons. In light of his son’s death, Kipling doesn’t analyze or confront his role in the War Office where he helped craft propaganda and was indirectly and collectively responsible for sending millions of men–sons, brothers, husbands to their deaths. Kipling’s guilt largely rests on the idea that he facilitated his son’s death by using his influence to get Jack a commission, but then the family veers away from that notion by emphasizing that this was what Jack wanted. However, given his father’s rabid patriotism and thwarted military ambitions, just how much was 17-year old Jack’s choice and how much was conditioning?
While the film treats all of its subjects with poignant sensitivity, the film ends with Kipling reciting his poem, My Boy Jack written for his dead son, and there’s no argument that Kipling loved his only son (at one point he asks: “How could I condemn my son to oblivion?”). But in spite of Kipling’s grief, there’s the idea that he still didn’t really get it. A few accusations fly from Jack’s mother and sister, but they are buried under the poem’s line “Except he did not shame his kind” and the idea remains that Kipling shoved aside the utter senselessness of his son’s death and grieved ultimately with the consolations of ‘noble’ sacrifice and duty to king and country. From director Brian Kirk.