TV review: Stirring story of the men who went to war against their will

By Peter Calder

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Fraser Brown, middle, in Field Punishment No 1.
Fraser Brown, middle, in Field Punishment No 1.

In the closing minutes of this stirring story of the 14 New Zealand conscientious objectors sent to the front in World War I, the main character, Archibald Baxter, explained for the umpteenth time that he was not a soldier.

"Well, what are you then?" an exasperated officer demanded. "A malingerer? A Bolshevik?"

Baxter, played with steady dignity by Fraser Brown, fixed the officer with a steely gaze: "I'm a farmer," he said. "From Otago."

It was a good exchange in a 90-minute film that was a little short on telling moments - another involved the emptying of an enemy corpse's pockets to show that Germans wrote to their sweethearts, too.

The film, made with the help of TVNZ and NZ On Air's Platinum Fund, handsomely evoked a major episode in our history, but the script never really found its feet dramatically.

It opened with Baxter discovered by a couple of children, sprawled semi-naked in a French field and taken to hospital. It seemed odd to rob the drama of its one shot at suspense: would any of these men make it out alive?

We quickly cut to the muddy battlefields of France, via a training camp in Wiltshire. Yet Baxter's famous memoir, We Will Not Cease, provided no end of excellent New Zealand-based back story, such as his ambush by the local cop, which would have given useful context.

Conscription was a response to fully 30 per cent of men saying they would not serve - 7000 were prosecuted for refusing even to train - so it was worth underlining that Baxter and his pals were no oddballs. It was left to the fighting men with whom they shared barracks to underline the widespread unease about the war.

"None of us here have much truck with this war, Archie," said one. "Especially those of us who have seen it at such close quarters." It was one of many pieces of dialogue that felt more expository than dramatic.

Episode after episode repeated the same couple of ideas: the frontline grunts were good buggers who shared their grub and the officers were toffs or borderline psychos.

Meanwhile the "conchies" were required to intone their credo so often that you wouldn't have blamed the soldiers if they'd clocked them one.

For all that, the film was driven by some excellent performances, notably Byron Coll as the spirited Mark Briggs; Miro Harre's superb production design created compellingly plausible locations and Victoria Kelly's score was a cracker.

Baxter's title reminded us that those who refuse to fight are warriors, too. TVNZ deserves plaudits for scheduling this important story in Anzac week. Lest we forget.

TV review
What: Field Punishment No 1
When: TV One, tonight

- NZ Herald

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