Lt. J.R.R. Tolkien, Lancaster Fusiliers, later Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE, FRSL)
For some curious reason, I was ask/abducted to go see Tolkien, at a “pre-event showing”, as the advert goes, broadcast live from a film festival. Nothing could be further from the truth. If I and another patron had not gone right to the top, a sweeper cleaning up popcorn in the aisle, none of use would have seen the movie. We were presented with a blank screen at showtime for another 8-10 minutes. When the manager came, he was profusely apologetic, as if this thing had infrequently happen in the past.
In the event, we were spared the “previews” apparently, but nothing of a “Film Festival” hosted by Stephen Colbert, NU grad BTW.
This movie will not appeal to everyone. It takes us into the life of J.R.R. Tolkien, and as a result, into the life of working class England as it was formed. Tolkien was headed for a yeomen’s life in the country, like many other soon-to-be dispossessed. English factories needed workers. At the death of the man of the house, Tolkien, his brother, and his mother, headed for the smoke, misery, and filth of proletarian London.
It is unclear how his mother is making a living. We have little time to contemplate it. She is dead within 20 minutes of the film’s beginning, with Tolkien hugging and crying for her. We are shown how his upbringing: naturally learning languages, and tales of wonder, such as Beowulf, will impact him. He, and his brother, in a society that values language and diction, gives him the opportunity for schooling.
A Catholic friar or priest close to the family encourages him in this direction. Apparently, Tolkien was raised Catholic? The lad was born in the seat of British Residency at Bloemfontein, Orange Free State [1892, Boer South Africa]. He goes to Boys school, presumably Catholic, and falls-in with a group of boys who swear fealty to each other, carousing in Barrows Tea Shop.
The film tries not to insult girls and women too much, but still has to be honest to the historic content and times of Tolkien’s life. It does this, in part, by having outstanding scenes of Tolkien’s future wife enraged by Tolkien’s misplaced jealousy and lack of concern for her love of Wagnerian Opera and the dismal life of an Edwardian attendant she lives.
The one thing this film portrays very well is the transitory nature of student life, where all classes and genders may mix in public. At the same time, this is to give the upper classes a chance to view the proletariat in relative safety, not just “sow their wild seed.” In fact, besides Tolkien, we see no wild seed being sown. The upper classes are talking and planning to “transform society through art…”
As a rugby referee, I was impressed by the rugby play I did see. At the Boys’ Prep school, and for Oxford King’s College, we see a J.R.R. Tolkien not just as an intellectual in the library, but as a lover, and as a #8 and #11, I believe. Not the front row, nor a prop for sure, but a scruffy brat of a player. His aplomb in describing to the Head Master his initial fights at Prep as, “It was just a couple of boys at rugby play, Sir.” won me over to the character right away. All of this, of course, was prep for war. In this case World War I. Tolkien and his friends fought in The Battle of The Somme, July-November, 1916.
More than three million men fought in the battle and one million men were wounded or killed, making it the single most bloody battle in human history. “Did I read that right?” Yep, it was THE SINGLE MOST BLOODY BATTLE IN HUMAN HISTORY!
It was the battle in which tanks were first used. When both planes and artillery, dropping and firing phosgene gas and bombs killed whole divisions, as portrayed in the movie well. If you didn’t hallucinate as a combatant during this battle, you probably didn’t survive it.
The reality was SO HORRIBLE, even the short scenes we see that made a woman next to me gasp and turn away, do not do justice to the immense destruction the upper classes were capable of wrecking on the lower (and even on their own heirs, sometimes) in 140 days of 24/7 war. No rest. No protection. Death and firing everywhere. We see Tolkien left in a shell crater of 100’s all dead from a phosgene gas attack, pale-face, blood pooled at the bottom.
Many novels came out of WWI, such as “All Quiet On The Western Front“. Many poems, as well, such as the vengeful Canadian poem “In Flanders Fields” (many people to this day, think this is a pacifist poem. How they got that idea is beyond the scope of this review. It is not pacifist).
Tolkien comes out of WWI shaken, but alive. Only one other friend of their Fellowship did. Finally, he proposed and married his University sweetheart. They reared kids, and Tolkien used them as foils to test-run “The Hobbit” stories. Then the “Trilogy.”
As I began this review, Tolkien is not for everyone. It begins high-brow, and may turn off the majority in the audience. It comes off as unusual and strange. “Scenes of war? What do they mean?”, asked the women next to me. There is Eloi in all of us, I guess. Some just want the pleasant, easy life. Not Tolkien; not his circle. Not this movie.