Representing the Human Condition in the Great War: William Boyd's the New Confessions and the Trench

By Mattisson, Jane | CineAction, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Representing the Human Condition in the Great War: William Boyd's the New Confessions and the Trench


Mattisson, Jane, CineAction


This article discusses the representation of the human condition in two autobiographical works about World War One, one a printed text and the other a film. I compare the contrasting depictions of life on the western front as presented in William Boyd's The New Confessions (1) and his documentary film The Trench. (2) Boyd's novel is an autobiography of a film director, James Todd, whose film-making career begins in World War One and continues in Hollywood after the war. I discuss why the representations in the two different media, creations of the same writer, and directed for the same purpose--to tell 'the truth'--present very different versions of the fighting soldier's life in the trenches. At the same time, an analysis of the directors' methods demonstrates that Boyd's novel and his film are based on a common principle: life is both paradoxical and uncertain. War has a special power to demonstrate the truth of this conviction.

The New Confessions is both a biography and an autobiography: John James Todd writes his own story at the same time as he recreates for the cinema that of his namesake, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, author of The Confessions (1782). (3) The New Confessions may also be seen as a biography of the film industry, describing developments between World War One and post-Second-World-War Hollywood. The medium in the novel which brings together biography and autobiography is film. The fictional John James Todd has directed two films on the war: Great British Regiments and The Aftermath of Battle. While the former wins official approval, the latter is rejected by the censors. Both purport to tell the truth about life at the front. And both sink into oblivion almost as soon as they are completed.

The Trench is Boyd's sixth film, and the only one which is both written and directed by him. It was prompted by memories of his grandfather, who was wounded at the Third Battle of Ypres in 191 7. The DVD version of The Trench contains short biographies of the main characters. The film has failed to win the critical acclaim that Boyd's earlier films and his novels have enjoyed. Both film directors believe they are telling the truth; in Todd's case, this is based on the evidence of first-hand experience, and in Boyd's, on conversations with his grandfather and research conducted at the Imperial War Museum. With The New Confessions and The Trench, Boyd has indeed 'done his time' in the trenches; it is 'his own time', and he has no intention of returning.

Autobiography, truth and imagination

The experience of the narrator or script-writer constitutes a uniquely qualified authority which has the ability to persuade readers or viewers of the veracity of his/her account. John James Todd is ostensibly the creator of The New Confessions. He describes the content and production of his films; we must rely on Todd's narrative accounts as we can neither see nor hear his productions. Todd's films, directed during the war, are silent: the only sound audible in the one viewing of Great British Regiments is accidental as it takes the form of genuine battle sounds heard from a distance.

The creator of The Trench describes in detail the background to and features of his film in his collection of non-fictional texts, Bamboo. (4) Here he assures the reader that his account is reliable because it is based on thorough research. Todd's and Boyd's accounts contain significant differences: The Trench employs sound and consists primarily of dialogue; Todd's films are packed with action and destruction while Boyd's is static; and Todd's characters are anonymous while Boyd's main characters have a name, a personality, and a past.

Both the written and filmed versions are viewed here as textual, autobiographical constructions constituting complementary representations of truth. Autobiography is seen here as a performance that represents the character and intention of the agent responsible. The latter is the director of the performance and the one who controls its form. …

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