Socialist Worker

Dignity in the face of horror

by Nigel Davey
Issue No. 1814

EVEN AMID the horror of full scale war there exists an obscene taboo. It is the fate of those soldiers who are severely wounded and mutilated. So when Margaret Thatcher ordered a Falklands War victory parade, such casualties were told not to attend.

Thatcher feared the sight might dull the public's appetite for war. The Officers' Ward is a sombre yet beautiful film about such soldiers. It is set in France during the First World War, a war fought to maintain empires. A young, good looking French officer, an engineer, is ordered forward to build a bridge.

A shell explodes on top of him. Without even seeing the enemy his war is over. Now he must fight a different battle - he has survived but has lost most of his face. The film follows his rehabilitation in a French military hospital. The story is incredibly tender in the way it treats its subjects. Don't be put off watching this because of its realistic and harrowing scenes. The film's strength is that you, the viewer, soon forget the mutilations and identify with human beings who, though having lost their physical identities, are still people struggling to rebuild shattered lives.

The film raises all the questions that make the casualties so fearful. How will your family respond when they see you? Will your kids run in terror from you? Can you form relationships when you appear so grotesque? How do you square your injuries and what you have lost with the call to patriotism?

In the First World War, nine million soldiers died and 50 percent of all serving soldiers were either killed, wounded or captured.

Of the total wounded 12 percent were classified 'gueules cassées' - men with broken faces. The film is based on accounts of such people and their long struggle to find dignity. They found this in real life by forming groups like the Union of Disfigured Men.

In France they took over a country house and turned it into a sort of retreat for the disfigured. Their leader, Colonel Picot, said the house would be 'a place worthy of them, a chateau like those acquired by the men who got rich when we lost our faces'. This video is a moving and all too timely reminder of the horrors of war.

The Officers' Ward is released on video and DVD next week.

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Sat 24 Aug 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1814
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