Britain’s National Service, an extension of wartime conscription, was a peculiar institution, initiated by Clement Atlee’s Labour government in the late ‘40s to meet the twin crises of the intensifying Cold War and nationalist challenges to Britain’s rule of its much diminished global empire. For a generation of young men, the compulsory two years they spent in the British services linked adolescence to adulthood via the absurdities of bureaucracies, the arbitrariness of rules, and the fatality of national aspirations to glory. Indeed, the administration of National Service was as quixotic as its aims.
As my father stood in line to receive his orders after his basic training, the young man in directly in front of him was ordered to Glasgow while my father learned he would be going to Gil Gil, via the Mediterranean, Aden, and the Indian Ocean. One of my father’s school friends had already died in an Irgun attack in Palestine. Other National Servicemen found themselves consigned to the Korea. And my father found himself enjoying all the privileges of the last years of the British Empire as a 19-year-old sergeant in the Kenya Highlands.
John Boorman’s new film eloquently captures this surreal experience of peacetime conscription. Queen and Country picks up the story of Bill Rohan, last seen in the closing scenes of 1987’s Hope and Glory cheering the Luftwaffe’s direct hit on his school. When Bill (Callum Turner) and his working class friend Percy (Caleb Landry Jones) excel in the commando course, they are sent not as cold-hearted killers to some distant battlefield but appointed as sergeant instructors to teach typing to the flat-footed and ill-educated recruits destined for the clerical corps.
Read more of Professor Smith's review here.
February 21, 2015