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Field Punishment No. 1

Review: written Mar 2015

TV movie sensibility softens otherwise hard hitting story

Field Punishment No. 1

This New Zealand film portrays the arrival in Europe of New Zealand conscientious objectors in 1916, men who on grounds of not wanting to promote war, and a belief that pacifism could defuse world tension, refused to fight, or even put on a uniform. It is based on a book written by one of these men, Archibald Baxter, and so is perhaps not the nuanced balanced look at the subject, but a story as seen from their point of view.

It starts with their arrival in Europe, having been taken from New Zealand and sent to the front against their will. They are threatened, bullied, and given that they are considered conscripted soldiers, subjected to the titular army punishment known as Field Punishment No. 1. This punishment involved being tied to an object and left there for two hours a day for 28 days. This was often accentuated by leaving the victims in stress positions, and was nicknamed crucifixion due to the practice in the early days of WW I of tying them with their arms spread. All this I hasten to add, comes from other sources than the film which leaves you to join the dots and infer what Field Punishment was. This means that as the story continues and the men are sent their different paths – either to the front line (where it was believed that exposure to warfare up close would make them pick up a gun) or to Dunkirk military prison, or to camps a short distance behind the front line, we experience what they experienced, rather than being truly informed as to what was institutionalised and what was personal grievance on behalf of the perpetrators. The experiences of Baxter himself, the trauma of which led him to end up in hospital, forms the main narrative arc of the movie, although we also see significant portions of what happened to the other 13 who were sent to France with him.. some of whom were his brothers.

As shocking as the topic is and how Baxter was treated, this is a TV movie and so some of the events have a somewhat sanitised feel, although it can still be graphic in places. Additionally, it is very much one sided, and shows the people he meets to either be arrogant bullying officers who are angry at his pacifism, or other foot soldiers sympathetic to him. It does not really show the bulk of the New Zealand forces who by all accounts were among the hardiest and fiercest of the Allies.

Crucially, context is missing – we land in the middle of the story, with these gentlemen already convicted and condemned to the front line, and we leave somewhat hurriedly with just a postscript to let us know what events followed. As compelling as the trauma they suffered was, and the injustice of being treated so inhumanely regardless of whether you agree with your position – we do not truly get a feel for who these men were – we know what they believed, but not how they reached that point or why they felt it. We are also left to fill in a few too many gaps of the secondary characters relationships, and the fuzziness of the character development weakens the impact the movie could have had.

Well shot and with no complaints about the acting, the movie is a fairly straight telling of Baxter's story, but struggles with its cinematic identity - Is it a polemic against the injustice of the titular punishment? A defense of conscientious objectors? Trying to be both? It really isn't very clear.. I give it a pass mark as a worthy story to be told ,which is efficient in its depiction – It’s not bad, but truthfully I think the topic deserved better, and this is not the highlight of the 100th anniversary of WW I.

Field Punishment No. 1

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