Behind the Lines (1998)

(a.k.a.  Regeneration)


Director: Gillies MacKinnon

Cast:  James Wilby (2nd Lt. Siegfried Sassoon), Jonathan Pryce (Captain William Rivers), Stuart Bunce (2nd Lt. Wilfred Owen), Jonny Lee Miller (2nd Lt. Billy Prior), Tanya Allen (Sarah), David Hayman (Major Bryce), Paul Young (Dr. Brock), Eileen Nicholas (Miss Crowe), David Robb (Dr. McIntyre), Rupert Procter (Capt. David Burns), Finlay McLean (Huntley), Jenny Ryan (Madge), Russell Barr (Sassoon's Soldier), Lee Brown (Logan), Bob Docherty (Man in Pub), John Neville (Dr. Yealland), Alastair Galbraith (Capt. Campbell), Julian Fellowes (Timmons), Kevin McKidd (Callan), Angela Bradley (Nurse Alison), Jeremy Child (Balfour Graham), Andrew Woodall (Willard), Kate Donnelly (Lizzie), Joel Strachan (Martin), James McAvoy (Anthony Balfour), Dougray Scott (Captain Robert Graves), Kevin McKidd (Callan).

Based on the novel Regeneration by Pat Barker


My wife and I both enjoyed this movie.  It shows in depth the damage war does to those who are in the thick of the battle.  In World War I, they called the effects of the war horrors "Shell Shock".  We now call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  This mental problem can be brought on by any seriously disturbing mental shock or stress.  For instance, women who are raped often suffer from PTSD. 

For the more educated, we have come a long way in understanding "shell shock".  In the movie, those soldiers in the mental hospital in Scotland are very ashamed that they "broke down" or failed because of their own "cowardice"  Now we understand that this is a counterproductive way of looking at PTSD.  Transferring soldiering in war to the case of rape, one can see how inappropriate the old explanation was  --  we don't say rape victims, for instance, "broke down"  or are just "cowards". 

In real life and in the movie Patton, the General strikes a soldier patient suffering from PTSD and calls the man a coward.  We still have such rednecks around, but the more enlightened, like General Eisenhower, demanded he apologize to the men in his army.   (But, of course, Patton makes excuses for himself as he apologizes, proving that it is hard for rednecks to let go of their mistaken sense of their own moral superiority over those who are different from themselves.)

In the mental hospital in the movie, we get to hear many horror stories that help us have more empathy for those who suffered the horrors of war.  (And because battle tactics had not kept up with military technology, thousands of men's lives were virtually thrown away by forcing men to attack heavily defended positions with man stopping machine guns.)

The main conflict revolves around the poet, 2nd Lt. Siegfried Sassoon, and the hospital psychiatrist Captain William Rivers.  Rivers has somewhat of an immoral task.  His job is to patch up those suffering from mental problems such as PTSD and send them back to the front where canon fodder is greatly needed.  (What would we say to a doctor who merely patched a physical wound that, back in the field, would probably soon burst and cause more serious problems?)

Complicating Rivers's life, is the mentally healthy Sassoon, who has been sent to the hospital merely because he wrote anti-war statements.  The army preferred that to a court martial and more publicity for the poet.  Sassoon is very intelligent and he is able to spar verbally with the psychiatrist about such disturbing problems as:  use of the hospital to house political dissenters, his patching up emotionally wounded men to hurry them back to the front, and to the fact that Rivers himself now suffers from PTSD after hearing and treating so many mentally damaged soldiers. 

These contentious issues remain throughout the movie, providing lively tension.

A side issue is the interaction of poet Sassoon with budding poet 2nd Lt. Wilfred Owen, who is also a patient at the mental hospital.  Sassoon was very generous to Owen providing the emerging poet with encouragement, helpful criticism and useful suggestions. 

We would recommend the movie.  

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


Sassoon found action in the Battle of the Somme. 



February 21 German bombardment of the village of Verdun begins.

February 25 the Germans occupy Fort Douaumont. French reinforcements under General Ptain arrive and slow the German advance with a series of counter-attacks.

March - April General Ptain kept open the Bar-le-Duc road into Verdun.

June 7 the Germans attacked the Verdun heights along the Meuse and took Fort Vaux.

June 23 the Germans almost reached Belleville heights (the last stronghold before Verdun itself). Partly to relieve the pressure on the French, an Allied offensive began on the Somme River, July 1.

July 1 Battle of the Somme begins. It was the bloodiest day in the history of the British army (57,470 casualties of which 19,240 were deaths).

After about 400,000 casualties for both the Allies and the Germans, the latter called off any further attack against Verdun.

October-December French offensives regained the forts and territory that they had lost earlier at Verdun.

Hindenburg replaced Falkenhayn as German Chief of General Staff.  Ptain became a French hero.


Siegfried Sassoon   --  English poet and author

1886  --  he was born in the village of Matfield, Kent, England.  His father was Jewish and his mother Protestant English. His father's family was that of the wealthy Indian Baghdadi Jewish merchant family.  (His father was disinherited for marrying outside the faith.)  The Thornycroft family, his mother's family sculpted many of the best-known statues in London.

1905-1907  --  Sassoon was educated at Marlborough College in Wiltshire and at Clare College, Cambridge.  He studied law and history.

He dropped out of university without a degree.  He spent his time hunting, playing cricket, and privately publishing some poetry. 

1913  --  his first success was The Daffodil Murderer, a parody of The Everlasting Mercy  by John Masefield. 

As WWI threatened, Sassoon joined the military (serving with the Sussex Yeomanry). 

1914 (August 4)  --  Britain declares war. 

1915 (May)  --  Sassoon joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers as an officer.

1915 (November)  --   he was sent to First Battalion in France.  He became good friends with poet Robert Graves.

The terrible slaughter of the First World War, horrified Sassoon.  His poetry suddenly becomes cynical and suspicious.  He felt that British propaganda completely failed to present a true picture of the horrors of the war

Sassoon was a brave man.  And a reckless man.  (Probably an adrenalin junkey.  Single-handedly he captured a German trench in the Hindenburg Line.)  His men nicknamed him "Mad Jack".  He was decorated for bravery.

He had a homosexual relationship with his friend, David Cuthbert Thomas.  When David was killed in the war, he really started to turn against the war effort. 

He came under the influence of pacifist friends such as Bertrand Rusell and Lady Ottoline Morrell. 

1917  --  he decides to oppose the further conduct of the war.  His letter to his commanding officer was printed in the press and read out in Parliament by a sympathetic MP.

Rather than court-martial Sassoon, they sent him to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, Scotland.  He was not mentally ill, but was nevertheless "treated" for shell shock.  The psychiatrist at the hospital became a surrogate father to Sassoon. 

At the hospital, Sassoon met poet Wilfred Owen.  Sassoon encouraged Owen to  write even better poetry.  Owen loved and admired Sassoon. 

1918  --  Owen killed in battle in France.

Sassoon also returned to the front, but was wounded by friendly fire and spent the remainder of the war in Britain.

After the war, Sassoon helped bring Owen's work to the attention of a wider audience.

1922  --  sudden death of the Scottish hospital psychiatrist was a major blow to Sassoon.

1967  --  death of Sassoon. 


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