Event Review: William Boyd & Marc Dugain – The Great War, Memory & Fiction

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Commemorating the centenary of the First World War Institute Francais invited a pair of acclaimed writers to talk about the conflict and it’s enduring literary legacy.

Inspired by his great grandfather’s experiences during World War One Marc Dugain wrote The Officer’s Ward in fifteen days. An instant critical and commercial success, it won several literary awards including the Prix des Deux Magots.

Wounded early on in the conflict, Dugain’s grandfather suffered extensive facial injuries and spent the remainder of the war convalescing in a hospital. He had to undergo nineteen surgical procedures in an attempt to repair his face. For the rest of his life he had trouble speaking, was only able to eat liquidised food and developed an ability to pull his tongue through the reconstructed nose.

Dugain’s moving account of a soldier spending several years in the Val-de-Grâce hospital rebuilding his life whilst beyond the institution’s walls millions were losing their lives in a bloody conflict waged across the continent is now studied in French schools.

A feature film adaptation was released in 2001. Nominated for nine César awards, it was submitted as the official entry at the Cannes Film Festival.

Dugain acknowledged that the First World War has greater resonance in contemporary French culture than the second due to the nation not yet having come to terms with atrocities committed and allegations that some citizens may have collaborated with invading Nazi forces.

Offering an alternative to conventional historical narratives, Dugain expressed his belief that events between 1914 and 1945 was a single war with a lengthy interlude. He suggested a complex series of events including the Treaty of Versailles made a resumption of hostilities inevitable.

Discussing the writing process Dugain stated that it’s his duty to create a fiction firmly grounded in reality.

A future project will be a script about the role played by Chinese Labour Corps in the conflict. With China not officially involved in hostilities until the decoration of war against Germany in 1917 battalions were restricted to non combatant duties. Under-represented in film and literature, the experiences of those who dug trenches and carried bodies is a story, he feels, has to be told.

Members of fellow panellist William Boyd’s family were also injured in the line of duty. His grandfather was wounded in the back at the Battle of Somme and kept the shrapnel as a souvenir. A great uncle was wounded at Paschendale.

One of Britain’s most successful novelists. Boyd’s work has been translated into more than thirty languages. In a career lasting more than three decades he has written the screenplay for Chaplin, authored a biography of fictitious artist Nat Tate and enlisted the aid of David Bowie in a playful hoax that fooled New York’s art critic community.

Boyd made his debut as director in 1999 with the feature film The Trench. Starring a pre-Bond Daniel Craig, the movie focused on a platoon in the hours leading up to the Battle of the Somme.

Currently living in France, Boyd spoke with passion about how the conflict has influenced his writing, differences between French and British commemorations, and the creation of historical myths.

Boyd suggested that in trying to understand events of one hundred years ago we may be distorting key political moments by trying to see them through a twenty-first century perspective. The creation of a historical narrative may have prioritised specific steps in the road to war and devalued instances which were regarded as significant at the time.

In common with many school children, Boyd was taught the War Poets at school. The horrors described in Sassoon’s verse were too much for a fellow pupil who fled from the classroom.

Boyd noted a tendency in war literature to make combat noble and heroic. He expressed a belief that writers and filmmakers have a duty to demythologise the conflict and show the true extent of horror experienced by those fighting in the front line.

When writing about the past he strives to strip away false glamour and heroism. His historical novels are written to challenge false assumptions about the eras and give the readers a greater understanding of the events without exaggeration or sensationalism.

An enlightening and engaging debate offering an insight into the workings of two highly successful novelists, how family experiences in the First World War continues to influence their work and the role they are playing in making sure the fallen will never be forgotten.

For information about future events being staged by Institut Français please contact:

Institut Français, 17 Queensberry Place, London SW7 2DT

Info & booking: 020 7871 3515 – http://www.institut-francais.org.uk/

Blu-ray Review: I’m All Right Jack

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The UK’s highest grossing film of 1959 arrives on Blu-ray.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s twin brothers John and Roy Boulting were one of the most consistently successful directing-producing partnerships in the British film industry.

The pair founded Charter Productions in 1937. After making several documentaries Roy directed and John produced the feature length thrillers The Landlady (1938), Consider your Verdict (1938), Inquest (1939) and Trunk Crime(1939).

During World War Two the brothers were given leave from service to make the anti-isolationist film Thunder Rock.

Politically active, John was an Ambulance driver for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. Roy shared his brother’s left-leaning tendencies.

Their idealism and social engagement was threaded into a succession of celebrated films, most notably Brighton Rock, that reflected post-war pessimism.

Today the pair are best remembered for a series of satires that poured scorn on the British establishment. Private’s Progress, Lucky Jim, I’m All Right Jack, Carlton-Browne of the FO, and Heaven’s Above! provide a snapshot of 1950s culture and are filled with biting swipes at institutions.

Perhaps the Boulting Brother’s most significant post-war comedy, I’m All Right Jack takes aim at industrial relations, consumerism, and television.

Winner of BAFTA’s for Best British Screenplay and Best British Actor (Peter Sellers), the film struck a chord with a nation struggling to reconcile itself to new forms of manufacturing, emerging marketplaces, and union practices.

Adapted from a short story by Alan Hackney, I’m All Right Jack featured a stellar cast of comedic actors including Peter Sellers, Ian Carmichael, Terry Thomas, Margaret Rutherford Irene Handl, and John Le Mesurier.

Reportedly, the Queen arranged a private screening for Prime Minister Harold Wilson when he visited Balmoral seeking permission to dissolve parliament and call a general election.

Sequel to the 1956 satire A Private’s Progress. Ian Carmichael plays Stanley Windrush, an inept over educated and under-experienced university graduate unable to find lasting employment. After a succession of interviews at factories proof fruitless his uncle offers a job at a missile factory with the vague promise of career advancement.

An unwitting patsy, Windrush does not suspect he has been placed in the factory to upset relations between management and the unions. A small scale dispute carefully orchestrated by the company’s directors to pad their pockets with tax free cash when a contract is reassigned becomes a national strike. With the country falling to pieces the press are eager to tell Stanley’s story.

Strikes had been outlawed during World War Two and in the brave new world of an increasingly technologised workplace the unions were increasingly militant. Keen to flex their collective muscle and resist attempts at getting employees to increase their workload without extra payments the threat of strike action was ever present in the 1950s.

Central to the film’s success is Peter Sellers portrayal of the union leader Fred Kite. A cross between Hitler and Charlie Chaplin, the Stalinist becomes a tragic figure when his unwillingness to compromise causes his wife and daughter to leave the family home. Sellers’ comic timing is offset with an ability to convey pathos with slight gestures.

Making a very welcome debut on Blu-ray, this rip-roaring comedy has not lost its bite. A laugh out loud classic.

I’m All Right Jack can be ordered from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Alright-Jack-Digitally-Restored-Blu-ray/dp/B00MUR3JTU/ref=sr_1_2?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1421665512&sr=1-2&keywords=i%27m+all+right+jack

Book Review: The Death Instinct by Jacques Mesrine. (Trans. Catherine Texier and Robert Greene)

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Despite being a folk hero in his native country, the criminal exploits of Jacques Mesrine were largely unknown in the UK until the release of a two-part feature film directed by Jean-François Richet and starring Vincent Cassell.

Famed for a succession of bank robberies and audacious escapes from prison. To the public he was a Robin Hood figure striking a blow against a corrupt and unjust system. For the police, Mesrine was a gangster that had to be put back behind bars. By the 1970s he had become the most wanted criminal in France and Canada.

Media savvy, Mesrine recognised the importance of positive press coverage in an age before spin became a buzzword. A succession of Paris Match cover appearances and interviews perpetuated an airbrushed account of his methods and motives.

A memoir containing gruesome details of killings ensured Mesrine was in total control of his myth’s creation. Written while incarcerated in La Santé Prison. He surreptitiously found a publisher willing to print the book and managed to smuggle the manuscript out of the institution. The book was an instant best-seller.

Seeking to quash the cult of Mesrine and prevent further distribution of the text, profits were confiscated by the state.

With the book no longer viable from a commercial standpoint the authorities were convinced this literary endeavour would be swiftly forgotten. They hadn’t banked on a curious would-be readers keen to get their hands on a copy after hearing positive comments about book. To meet initial demand a small number of bootleg copies were clandestinely distributed.

Mesrine’s life was cut short in 1979 when a van drove up beside his car and four armed police officers opened fire on the vehicle. His family maintain the shots were fired without warning but a 2004 court hearing ruled that the officers had interpreted Mesrine’s movements as potentially reaching for a weapon and had acted in accordance with the law.

After Mesrine’s death interest from the public in the all aspects of his criminal career and political leanings was at fever pitch. Catering to the seemingly insatiable appetite for information about the fallen gangster’s life a publisher reissued Mesrine’s memoir.

The reprinting was met by a legal action brought upon the publisher by Mesrine’s family. Seeking to reclaim confiscated royalties, the estate successfully mounted a challenge that saw the entire print run seized and outstanding author’s payments repatriated.

In 1984 Situationist publisher éditions Champ libre re-issued the book. Owner, editor, and publisher Gérard Lebovici was murdered shortly after the book hit the shelves. His killer remains at large.

Long out of print and never before available in an English language edition. Tam Tam Press’ issuing of a newly translated edition reveals that Mesrine had potential to forge a career as a full time writer if he’d he not sought a life of criminality.

Equal parts autobiography and socio-political tract. The author sketches a narrative of key stages in his descent into a life filled with feuds, scams, and murder without remorse or excessive self analysis.

As a child Mesrine frequently absconded from school to watch Westerns and Film Noirs at a local cinema. The legacy of those afternoons spent watching those films seeps through every page. Structured like a thriller, the book presents instances of brutality with shockingly vivid detail.

More than a true crime book, The Death Instinct offers an insight into the mind of a psychopath. With every sentence Mesrine is attempting to manipulate the reader and control their views of his actions and get them to subscribe to his political agenda.

The most significant literary account of a criminal’s life to have been published since Edward Bunker’s Mr Blue: Memoirs of a Renegade.

The Death Instinct can be ordered from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Death-Instinct-Jacques-Mesrine/dp/0966234685