Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

37 Days: Death by Bad Casting
A Review by Editor Mike Hanlon


Rainer Sellien as Kaiser Wilhelm II

At our local Armistice/Veterans Day event recently, I learned from a friend that the vaunted 2014 BBC2 production about the July Crisis of 1914, 37 Days, was now available for purchase on Amazon.com here in the States.  We ordered it immediately and when it arrived the lady and I spent an evening binge-watching all three hour-long episodes.

Key Figures in the British Cabinet
Back Row: Bill Paterson as Lord Morley, Nicholas Asbury as Winston Churchill, Mark Lewis Jones as David Lloyd George; Front Row: Kenneth Cranham as John Burns,
Tim Pigott-Smith as Herbert Henry Asquith, Ian McDiarmid as Edward Grey

The initial look was just right (except that the British Foreign Office seemed to have been relocated to Belfast) and — as with many BBC produced dramas — the casting we meet in the opening sequences seemed pitch perfect.  While not identical looking to their British historical counterparts, all the actors seemed close matches and to have the style and mannerisms of the 1914 ruling class down precisely. The central character, Sir Edward Grey, is well played by Ian McDiarmid, and similar successful historical captures are achieved by Nicholas Farrell as his assistant, Eyre Crowe, Tim Pigott-Smith as Herbert Asquith, Mark Lewis Jones as David Lloyd George, and a host of others.

There were some signals that the historical record was getting made-over a bit for dramatic effect: the "Blank Check" episode seemed misplaced chronologically,  the Poincaré trip to Russia in the midst of the crisis is never mentioned, and repeated episodes of Margot Asquith openly playing factional politics with her favorites on her husband's cabinet seemed exaggerated, possibly to provide a substantial female presence in the otherwise all-male drama.

But another element eventually became the dominant source of annoyance for me.  The excellence in casting for Team Britain was turned upside down for all the other soon-to-be belligerents. Despite casting Germans as Germans and so forth, many of the portrayals simply did not work. For a few, the physical appearances were off, particularly Tsar Nicholas – the physically imposing chap that portrayed him is much better suited to play Nicholas's strongman father Alexander III – but the problems with the non-British cast ran much deeper. Whether it was their tone of voice, facial gestures, body language – whatever the problem – most of these players just  do not sell themselves as historic figures from 1914. And they often behave in the most unlikely, crudest ways. Moltke, for instance, is openly confrontational with everyone, even berating the Kaiser before other counselors.

Key German Advisors
 Bernhard Schütz as Helmuth Moltke, Stephan Szasz as Gottlieb von Jagow,
Ludger Pistor as Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg

Almost all of these foreigners' parts are neither as well written nor as well acted as for their British counterparts. The writers depict every major German figure, except Ambassador Prince Lichnowsky, as belligerent, rude, or uncouth; every Austrian as stupid or foppish; and the single significant French character unsurpassingly rude for a diplomat. Also, the actors for these roles seem to have been instructed to remove any element of subtlety or personal charm from their portrayals.

Implausibly, the Tsar Watches On Approvingly as a General Drills and 
Harangues His Hemophiliac Son

All of this made the entire production implicitly sympathetic to the British officials, their misjudgments and miscalculations presented as eventuating from sophisticated and good faith cabinet debates that were tragically misinformed, in good part due to the deceptions of  every other nation's politicians and diplomats.

At the end of three hours of viewing, I found myself disappointed. Because of this almost structural flaw with the casting and characterizations, 37 Days was a major let down. I simply could not trust the history being told.

MH

1 comment:

  1. The Anglophilic view of WWI just won't die, eh?
    Too bad. What a missed opportunity for this movie.

    ReplyDelete