The film opens with a bird's-eye sweep over the frieze of a post-engagement battlefield--mud, strewn with bodies and shards of machinery, all iron grey and relieved only by rare patches of crimson blood. Psychiatrist William Rivers (Jonathan Pryce) treats shell-shocked soldiers in the converted Craiglockhart Manor. He is obliged to admit the poet and decorated war hero, Siegfried Sassoon (James Wilby), because his military superiors prefer to label the much-loved Sassoon's public criticism of the war as insanity rather than treason. Rivers is supposed to "cure" the very sane poet of his anti-war sentiments.

At the hospital, Sassoon meets another poet, Wilfred Owen (Stuart Bunce), equally horrified by the war although he, like Sassoon, believes himself not to be a pacifist. A secondary plot is devoted to the mute officer Billy Pryor (Jonny Lee Miller) who recovers his speech, his memories, and a small portion of his self-respect through the patience of his doctor and his lover, Sarah (Tanya Allen). Vignettes of other personal horrors and the brutal psychological wounds they have caused are presented with riveting flashbacks to the ugly trenches. Sassoon, Owen, and Pryor return to active service. The film closes with a dismal scene of Owen's dead body lying in a trench.


A deeply moving portrayal of the illogic and waste of war, mostly faithful in plot and mood to Barker's novel about real characters. Other themes in the novel are considerably downplayed, especially Sassoon's homosexuality, while the issue of family relationships was eliminated. Rivers emerges as a complex, gentle man--with his own wounds. Officers are not mute, he tells Pryor; officers stammer. His speech recovered, the angry patient quickly identifies the doctor's stammer, giving viewers an inkling of River's private pain, which is only partially explained with an allusion to his pre-war research in nerve regeneration.

River's general agreement with his patients over the insanity of war is mirrored in his reaction to the brutal "treatments" of a colleague who forces his mute patients to speak by jolting their mouths with increasing doses of electricity. The sober but beautiful atmosphere of the Scottish countryside and the powerful poetry that Sassoon and Owen write there result in a regeneration of another sort that allows both men to return to their duty (and for one, to death), although their hatred of war is undiminished.


Based on the novel by Pat Barker. Scotland-Canada Coproduction

Primary Source

Norstar Home Video, distributed by Behaviour Distribution