Behind the Lines, a.k.a. Regeneration (1997)   6 comments

Just one example of the excellent cinematography in this movie

All images in this post are screen captures I obtained via a legal DVD and the PowerDVD program.  



Jonathan Price as Captain (Dr.) William Rivers

James Wilby as Second Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon

Stuart Bunce as Second Lieutenant Wilfred Owen

Jonny Lee Miller as Second Lieutenant Billy Prior

Tanya Allen as Sarah

Dougray Scott as Captain Robert Graves

John Nevillle as Dr. Yealland

Paul Young as Dr. Brock

Directed by Gillies Mackinnon

Music Composed by Mychael Danna (who also works with Atom Egoyan)

Based on the Pat Barker novel Regeneration

1 hour, 54 minutes long

Rated R in the United States


World War I devastated Europe, devouring much of a generation of young men, ending monarchies, and ending the existence of several nations.  The old order, which began the war in 1914, perished, giving birth to the bloody Twentieth Century. This war has inspired some excellent movies, including All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, Grand Illusion, and A Very Long Engagement.  To this list one ought to add Behind the Lines, a.k.a. Regeneration, if one has not done so already.

I do not want to reveal too many plot points, lest I spoil the movie for those who like to discover a movie during the first viewing.  So, with that statement, I begin.

The film’s setting

Most of Behind the Lines takes place at Craiglockart Hospital, a military asylum in Scotland, in 1917.  Almost all of the patients here are severely shell-shocked, and, for some of them, their sanity is a thing of the past.

Lt. Sassoon and Capt. Rivers

Captain William Rivers, a senior psychologist, runs the asylum.  His job is to render as many of his patients as possible fit for combat again.  Not surprisingly, some of them think that he is cold-hearted, at least at first.  He is not.  In fact, Rivers is quite humane, thinking of his patients as men first and foremost.  He is also a patriot, understanding his work as essential to the fight against German militarism.  And, unlike many of his superiors, he knows well the high human cost of that fight.  In fact, treating so many severely damaged men is giving him a bad case of what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Rivers commands great respect among his superiors, so they give him the option of treating or not treating one Second Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon, a respected officer who, until recently, has served with great distinction on the Western Front.  But Sassoon has turned into a critic of the war, writing that it is a conflict of conquest, not liberation, and that his government has prolonged said war needlessly.  London wants Sassoon either discredited or convinced to recant.  Rivers accepts the assignment to persuade him to recant.


Fortunately for Sassoon, he has friends and allies who protect him.  A superior officer, Captain Robert Graves, has lied to protect Sassoon from a court-martial.  Sassoon is a homosexual.  London has not cared about his sexual orientation until recently, for the government has decorated him for battlefield bravery.  However, now that Sassoon has become a vocal critic of the war, there are some influential people in the capital city who might use his homosexuality as a pretext for a trumped-up charge of treason.  Rivers knows how to manipulate the system to protect Sassoon from this fate.

Sassoon is not a pacifist, for he cannot say honestly that no war is ever necessary.  He has, however, concluded that the Great War is not such a conflict.  Thus he raises a question with which his psychologist begins to wrestle.  But this is the Royal Army during World War I, and, as Rivers says early in the film, “We all have our orders.”

Second Lieutenants Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen

Recovering the war before returning to combat is Wilfred Owen, who is happy to meet Sassoon, a more experienced poet.  Throughout the movie we see Sassoon functioning as a literary mentor to Owen, encouraging him to write about the war.  And so we see Owen writing his classic poem, Dulce et Decorum est.

The eyes of Second Lieutenant Billy Prior

We also meet Billy Prior, who suffered a major trauma on the Western Front.  When we first see him, he is a mute with repressed memories.  He does speak again, however.  And he recalls the incident which prompted his breakdown:  He found an eyeball in his trench.  (That was a disturbing flashback.)

Prior’s self-image hinges on returning to combat, to join the “club of all clubs,” as he puts it.  He interprets his breakdown as a failure, a stain on his character.


Prior is attracted to Sarah, a kind young woman who lives nearby.  She works in the munitions factory and admits that she is not sure if she loved her late boyfriend, who has died in the war.

So Prior has to decide between the war and a good woman.  I would choose the latter.

I do wish that there had been more scenes with Tanya Allen’s Sarah.  This is a movie about war veterans, I understand, but, with such a male cast, female roles are small.  The only actresses with more than one scene are Tanya Allen, who, of course, portrays Sarah, and those thespians who play the unnamed nurses.  And Ms. Allen is rather easy on the eyes.

Behind the Lines is a movie to watch carefully, to which to devote one’s full attention during the viewing experience.  The cinematography is well-done, the soundtrack is appropriately sad, and the actors are adept at communicating at least as much with their eyes and facial muscles as with the delivery of their dialogue.  Their is nothing exploitative in this movie, and the verbal descriptions of combat are more graphic than the visual depictions.

I will reveal the end, however, for the most moving scene is the final one.  We know from history that Wilfred Owen died a week before the November 11, 1918, armistice took effect.  So nobody should be surprised to learn that Owen dies at the end of the film.  The moment I saw his first scene, I knew that he was going to die.

Capt. Rivers reads a letter from Lt. Sassoon

The war is over.  People are celebrating in the streets.  But Captain Rivers is sitting quietly in his office and reading a letter from Sassoon, who has returned to combat, captured and killed more Germans, and survived to see the end of hostilities.  He informs Rivers of Owen’s death and thanks him again for “gentle miracles.”

Rivers reading

Sassoon quotes something that Owen, with whom he had been corresponding, sent to him.

Rivers weeps

Owen retold the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, from Genesis.  In Owen’s version, however, Abraham looked at the animal then slew his son as well as “half the seed of Europe, one by one.”  Captain Rivers reads these words and cries.

Behind the Lines is a human story, a tale of deeply wounded men, most of whose injuries are invisible, trying to do the right thing, as they understand it.  They do not always agree or like each other, but they wind up respecting one another.  Their best of their humanity saves them from the worst of others’ humanity.

This is the first of three Tanya Allen movies I plan to review at this blog.  The others are White Lies and Fancy Dancing.  It was, in fact, the listing of this movie on Tanya Allen’s IMDb page that brought my attention to Behind the Lines.  She played Sarah in this Canadian-British movie after concluding the role of Audrey, the laconic intern who had great difficulty finding a bran muffin, in The Newsroom (1996-1997), a wonderful Canadian comedy series I advise people to watch.  (The complete episodes and a television movie from The Newsroom universe are available on DVD.)  The talented Ms. Allen has demonstrated her acting range well between The Newsroom and Behind the Lines, both of which preceded Starhunter and Starhunter 2300, the complete episode guide to which I have written on this blog.

Until White Lies….



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