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Trained killing machines

by
12 February 2016

Stephen Brown views cinema releases

Regular hall booking: the men of the Home Guard in Dad’s Army

Regular hall booking: the men of the Home Guard in Dad’s Army

IT WOULD be hard to imagine the television and radio series of Dad’s Army, nor the stage show and 1971 film, without an ecclesiastical setting. The church hall and vicar’s vestry commandeered for use by the Local Defence Volunteers (later renamed the Home Guard) were featured from the very first TV episode in 1968.

The new Dad’s Army film (Cert. PG) retains those connections though rather more tenuously. Gone is the verger, but “His Reverence”, the Revd Timothy Farthing, becomes, in contrast with the early episodes, one of the first characters we meet. A picture of him nevertheless emerged through such references as his concern over the effects of wartime on earnings from editing Ring-a-ding Monthly, a bell-ringing magazine. And, while he is still a bit of a fusspot in the present version, anxious that the platoon’s drill practice won’t overlap with the morris dancers’ meeting, there is a ring of truth in the way he ministers to the guardsmen.

Alan Wilkinson’s study of the Church during wartime (Dissent or Conform?) recounts that bishops did encourage the clergy to do as much as they could for the Home Guard, short of bearing arms. Some even did that, too. The actor Frank Williams, now in his eighties and a former General Synod member, continues to play the vicar. He is one link with the old Dad’s Army. Ian Lavender who played Pike is the other, now a brigadier.

Most of the similarities end there. The present film is like some distant cousin twice removed. To their credit, give or take a few catchphrases, the director and actors steadfastly avoid replicating the way the original cast played their parts. Toby Jones (Mainwaring) is less pompous and more vain than Arthur Lowe’s version. Bill Nighy’s Wilson, though fey, is a more focused character than John Le Mesurier’s, who, as the series progressed, took on a vaguer demeanour. Tom Courtenay’s Lance-Corporal Jones has been cleansed of any politically incorrect references to the inhabitants of Sudan whom he encountered under General Kitchener.

Michael Gambon, Bill Paterson, Daniel Mays, and Blake Harrison make no attempt to copy those who first portrayed Godfrey, Frazer, Walker, and Pike. A running joke of the programmes was never seeing Mrs Mainwaring, the daughter of the suffragan Bishop of Clegthorpe, though we had a pretty good idea of her ferocity. The film makes a decision to feature her in person, thereby losing most of the humour.

It is 1944, and the plot involves a German spy (Catherine Zeta-Jones, whom most of the cast find irresistible). It helps turn Dad’s Army from a sitcom into a full-length feature film. It is amiable rather than comic, without losing the same fear of invasion as the programmes often displayed.

The old series was criticised in some quarters for presenting the Home Guard as shambolic dodderers, when in reality most of them were far younger. More than 1200 Home Guardsmen died on duty. Even though we see less evidence of the men’s churchgoing habits than in the series, there is no mistaking the continuing Christian assumptions behind their battle for right over wrong. There is even a discussion about life after death as they prepare to lay down their lives for their friends.

Dad’s Army 2016 may lack the programmes’ exquisite balance of characterisation with narrative, but there is no mistaking the salute that it gives to ordinary people doing extraordinary things in pursuit of their beliefs.

 

THE effect of bad religion includes punishing people, so that they surrender whatever vestiges of personal feeling they have to the “Greater Cause”. Good religion enables us to dare risk the pursuit of self-sacrificial love.

The Best Director winner at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, the subject of a recent retrospective at BFI Southbank, has made a film that displays both these elements. The Assassin (Cert. 12A), set in ninth-century China towards the end of the Tang dynasty, is loosely based on a traditional tale. It is Hou’s first wuxia (martial-arts) film, and he brings to it his usual sympathetic understanding of what makes people tick.

Nie Yinniang (a luminous Shu Qi) is returned to her homeland on the orders of her aunt, the Princess-Nun Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi), who had originally kidnapped her as a child and groomed her to kill perceived enemies. She is instructed, as a religious duty, to kill her cousin Lord Tian (Chang Chen of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame). He is not only the governor of Weibo, but formerly her fiancé.

It is a big ask, and, unsurprisingly, Yinniang cannot do it. In the process, she discovers a new, unexpected source of strength.

Her passage from the oppressive religion of her mentor is filmed in high-contrast black-and-white. On arrival in Weibo, the film beautifully transfigures into colour, even changing its aspect ratio in the process. Hou’s regular cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing illustrates pictorially how when, released from bad religion, the world takes on a completely new shape for people, one that throws new light on everything.

For an audience this is helpful, because Hou frequently shrouds his characters in mystery. What are they really thinking beneath surface appearances? He further puzzles us by deploying actors playing double roles. That may partly be attributable to the mythic world in which wuxia movies are set. Laws of gravity are defied there, and personal identities often merge.

Such a location also lends itself to the introduction of supernatural powers on which the heroine can draw. The name Yinniang literally means “Hiding Woman”. There is so much more to this person (to any person) than meets the eye.

Failure to acknowledge our hidden depths, wherein good religion may flourish, will keep us as spectators looking in on things from a distance, exiled from our true home.

The Assassin is beautiful to look at, and, while it provides a few helpings of swordplay, their brevity may not satisfy hardcore wuxia fans. On the other hand, it is questionable whether our Western eyes will be discerning enough to grasp the full spirituality of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s trademark insights into how we come to be the people we are.

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