Total Pageviews

Monday 15 September 2014

The Way We Were

Miranda Otto plays Meredith Appleton and Annie Martin her friend Nettie Stanley in the commendable 2010 Australian movie South Solitary, which deals with post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by soldiers returning from World War I. See story on South Solitary below.
Australia is in the midst of a frenetic bout of film making and book publishing to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War I.
In the past week, two brilliantly-made Australian series, both screened on ABC TV and both dealing with the realities of the "Great War" have sadly ended. The first, Anzac Girls, was a fairly heavily fictionalised version of the experiences of real nurses, in Egypt, Greece and on the Western Front. Although at times it had threatened to degrade itself into Days of Our Lives at Gallipoli, Anzac Girls was eventually rescued by its final episodes, in which viewers were given a truly acute sense of what these astonishingly brave women went through on Lemnos in 1915 and in France and Belgium in 1916-18.
The second series, The War That Changed Us, was even more enthralling. Although it, too, was based on real war diaries, letters and stories, and actors playing real people in convincingly re-created situations, it also mixed in real (and very cleverly coloured) footage, both from the war and from the home front. The fact that it was focused equally on the war and the situation back in Australia during the war, made it all that more interesting. The socio-political events in Australia between 1914-18, mostly concerning pro- and anti-war campaigners, and the distress for families of soldiers and nurses, might have come as a revelation to many viewers. The re-created and real footage was interspersed with insightful interviews with war historians. One of them was Bill Gammage, who a few years ago gave me his father's 1938 cork-platened Royal De Luxe portable:
It was the expert use of a much earlier Royal typewriter which caught my attention in The War That Changed Us.
The typist was Virginia Gay, playing the part of anti-war campaigner, feminist and suffragist Vida Jane Goldstein (1869-1949). See biographies of Vida here and here.
The real Vida
Virginia Gay playing Vida, right.
The typewriter Virginia Gay used in the series was a Royal Standard No 1. I have taken the liberty here of using an imagine from Mark Adams' blog, as, like the Royal used in the TV series, it has the Royal logo on the side, which mine lacks (and anyway, Mark takes better photos):
Virginia Gay's adeptness in typing on the Royal in many scenes from The War That Changed Us impressed me no end.  Along with this series raising the issue of the then-undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by so many soldiers and nurses after World War I, Virginia's typing reminding me of my own small contribution to an excellent 2010 Australian film, South Solitary.
Before filming started on this movie, I was asked by the producers to provide a machine so that the lead actress, Miranda Otto, could learn how to use a typewriter.
Like Virginia Gay in The War That Changed Us, I thought Miranda did a pretty good job of it in South Solitary.
Scriptwriter and director Shirley Barrett told Graeme Blundell for an article in The Australian that she had asked Miranda "to learn to type on the period typewriter [the character] Meredith uses in the film, at one point suggesting she actually write the daily call sheets for the film's crew".
Otto confirmed this: "Yes, she [Barrett] wanted me to but I never ended up that good a typist. Even though I practised and practised and practised."
Blundell added, "She laughs loudly again, and mimes such manic typing action that a woman who has sat next to us with a coffee turns her back on us."
Another thing Otto had to learn to do was carry a sheep uphill!
Imagine trying to carry a sheep AND a big, heavy old typewriter
Moved by its treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and the way in which World War I survivors were far too often misunderstood, here is my own August 5, 2010, column on Solitary South:
There is a wonderfully etched character called Jack Fleet in the commendable Australia film South Solitary, set in 1927 at a lighthouse smack bang in the teeth of the Roaring Forties in the Southern Ocean.
Fleet, played by New Zealander Marton Csokas, is very much the solitary, a Welshman still hiding away from the horrors experienced fighting on the Western Front in World War I. There is the suggestion he is a shell-shocked deserter; another lighthouse keeper, Harry Stanley (Rohan Nichol), says Fleet is better off at this end of the earth rather than in his native Britain, where they shot shrieker soldiers.
The lead character, Meredith Appleton (brilliantly played by Miranda Otto), pleads with Fleet to open up and explain his sullen moodiness. Meredith is sympathetic, unlike Stanley, or more so Meredith’s taskmaster uncle, George Wadsworth (Miranda's father, Barry Otto).
Shirley Barrett’s screenwriting subtly reflects the attitudes of the day, attitudes born of an ignorance of the realities of what soldiers like Fleet had endured. That ignorance, in turn, had been created at the time of the war by strict censorship, in spite of the best efforts of Australian journalist Keith Murdoch and historian Charles Bean. If Australia knew what its young men were being subjected to, its willingness to throw them into the conflict might have waned [a point later strongly borne out in The War That Changed Us].
Ignorance, and even the pretence of it, may have been an excuse for the way men like Fleet were treated in the post-war years. There was little if any understanding of the effects of being exposed to constant bombardment, surrounded by death on all sides, the deprivation of sleep, or proper meals, hygiene and medical assistance, or any sort of relief from the regime of kill or be killed.
Even after World War II, doctors struggled with ways to calm the shattered nerves of Australian veterans. Many suffered from what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, but back then there was no name for it, let alone a treatment. After the war, Australian psychiatrist John Cade (above; see here and here), working in an unused kitchen at the Bundoora Repatriation Mental Hospital in Melbourne, conducted crude experiments which led to the discovery of lithium as a treatment of bipolar disorder. He found the lithium ion had a calming effect and carried out a trial of lithium citrate or lithium carbonate on some of his patients diagnosed with mania, dementia praecox (schizophrenia) or melancholia.
It is now recognised that post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder quite separate from bipolar or depression, or indeed acute stress disorder. It may develop from was once called shell shock or battle fatigue, or what is now known as combat stress reaction, the symptoms of which characterise much of Fleet’s behaviour in South Solitary, such as a disconnection from one's surroundings.
It’s interesting how much more we now know about such disorders and their treatment, especially as a result of the impact of conflict on the men and women who served in two world wars, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan. And yet ignorance of the truth continues to be used as a defence in so many other areas of war. It’s mind-boggling that the Holocaust remains a topic of debate.
Last month [July 2010] SBS screened a three-part BBC documentary series called Nuremberg: Nazis On Trial. The second part concentrated on Herman Goering, who had insisted to his suicide on the eve of his hanging that everything he and his co-defendants had done was because of their German patriotism. He claimed he knew nothing of the concentration camps, a staggering assertion on its own. But the truth was on trial at Nuremberg, and regardless of Goering’s lying and his cowardly end, the truth was the ultimate winner.
The truth about war is now [in August 2010], of course, the bottom line of the defence being offered by Townsville-born journalist Julian Assange, the founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, as he reveals tens of thousands of secret documents in his Afghan War Diary. The world has a right to know – even if the logs endanger the lives of Afghani civilians, not to mention US and allied troops. Assange’s decision to publish and be damned came shortly after he took part in a hearing in Brussels discussing Internet censorship and newspaper gagging.
Assange  has been called the “internet's freedom fighter” and Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg (above) said Assange was “serving our [American] democracy and serving our rule of law precisely by challenging the secrecy regulations, which are not laws in most cases, in this country”. Ellsberg added Assange’s work was “all to the good of our democratic functioning” and that his “instincts are that most of this material deserves to be out”.
While the ethics of all this are being weighed up around the world, today [August 5, 2010] we mark the anniversary of the 1735 acquittal on a seditious libel charge of New York Weekly Journal editor and publisher John Peter Zenger (above). Zenger was sued by New York’s royal governor Sir William Cosby. He won on the basis that what he had published – material written by lawyer and statesman James Alexander - was true. It is considered a landmark decision in the history of the freedom of the press and a milestone in American jurisprudence.
The judge had ordered jurors to find Zenger  guilty of printing false, scandalous, and malicious articles. Defence attorney Andrew Hamilton (above) responded that a finding otherwise was “the best cause of liberty...”  He convinced the jury that whether words are libellous depends on whether the reader considers them true. Hamilton persuaded them to take part in jury nullification, “sending a message about some social issue that is larger than the case itself or because the result dictated by law is contrary to the jury's sense of justice, morality, or fairness”.  It was one of the first times in American history a lawyer had challenged the laws rather than claiming innocence for his client.
Zenger later wrote, "No nation, ancient or modern, ever lost the liberty of speaking freely, writing, or publishing their sentiments, but forthwith lost their liberty in general and became slaves”.  American statesman Gouverneur Morris (above) said, “The trial of Zenger in 1735 was the germ of American freedom, the morning star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionised America.*”
*All of which is all the more interesting in light of another recently ended TV series, The United States of Secrets, about the Edward Snowden documents.

No comments: