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Regeneration is a 1997 British film, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Pat Barker. The film is directed by Gillies MacKinnon. It was released as Behind the Lines in the US in 1998. The film follows the stories of a number of Officers of the British Army during World War I who are brought together in Craiglockhart War Hospital where they are treated for various traumas. It features the story of Siegfried Sassoon, his open letter reprinted in The Times criticising the conduct of the war and his return to the front.

A poster of the 1997 Regeneration.jpg
Directed byGillies MacKinnon
Produced byAllan Scott
Peter R. Simpson
Written byPat Barker (novel)
Allan Scott (screenplay)
Music byMychael Danna
CinematographyGlen MacPherson
Edited byPia Di Ciaula
Distributed byArtificial Eye (UK)
Release date
  • 21 November 1997 (1997-11-21)
Running time
114 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom



The film starts by referring to Siegfried Sassoon's open letter (Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration) dated July 1917, inveighing "against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed". The letter has been published in The Times and has received much attention in England particularly because Sassoon is considered a hero for several (perhaps suicidally rash) acts of valour - and has been the recipient of the Military Cross which we see Sassoon throwing away. With the string-pulling and guidance of Robert Graves, a fellow poet and friend of Sassoon, the army decides to send Sassoon to Craiglockhart War Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Scotland, rather than court-martialling him. At Craiglockhart, Sassoon meets Dr. William Rivers, a Freudian psychiatrist who encourages his patients to express their war memories as therapy.

There is no clear main character in this film, but there is more focus on several of the characters; notably, Billy Prior, Siegfried Sassoon and Dr. Rivers himself. A very important secondary character, Wilfred Owen, is linked to Sassoon’s storyline.

Prior, at first an unsympathetic character, presents a challenge to Dr Rivers, who needs to discover what experience in the trenches caused the loss of Prior's ability to speak. Prior regains his speech suddenly then goes into the town in search of female companionship and begins a relationship with Sarah, a munitions worker. He has a strong sense of social class, setting himself apart from the other officers ("public school toffs") and refers to incidents that have caused him to mistrust the military authorities. There are a number of references to the difference in treatment between the privates and the officers, including the most glaring, Craiglockhart itself which only caters for officers. When Prior is finally ready for hypnosis, he and Rivers discover that his trauma was caused by the death of one of Prior's men in the trench, blown to bits by a bomb. Prior lost his power of speech after having picked up the eyeball of the killed private and asked what should be done with "this gobstopper". This seems strange to Prior who had expected his condition to be caused by some action for which he was responsible. He feels he has to return to active duty in the trenches to prove to himself and the world that he is as fully competent as before.

Sassoon becomes friends with another patient in the hospital, Wilfred Owen. Owen aspires to be a poet as well and he greatly respects Sassoon's work; Sassoon agrees to help Owen with his poetry.

Meanwhile, Doctor Rivers has taken a leave of absence from the hospital and visits Dr. Lewis Yealland’s practice in London. Dr. Yealland treats his patients, who are privates and not officers, not like traumatised human beings but like mere machines, which need to be repaired as quickly as possible. Rivers sits in on one of Yealland’s electroshock therapy sessions on a private named Callan, who, like Prior, has lost his speech. Rivers is repulsed by the brutality of the treatment, and back in Craiglockhart he continues to produce what Sassoon calls his "gentle miracles" but at the cost of his own mental health - in contrast to Yealland who seems to feel nothing towards his patients but is proud of his success in treating mutism.

Sassoon has also come to a very important decision. Although he still disagrees with the reasons for the continuation of the war, he decides to return to France in order to care for his men.

During the Review Board’s evaluation of Sassoon, Rivers is surprised by Sassoon's insistence that he hasn't changed his mind. As such he still fulfills the qualification of mental illness that landed him at Craiglockhart. On the other hand, Sassoon did not truly qualify as mentally ill in the first place, and he strongly wishes to return to the war. When his opinion is needed, he qualifies Sassoon as being fit, and thereby qualified to return to war. Sassoon is seen soon after being injured whilst in a trench and laughing - to the bemused consternation of his men. The ambiguity of this scene (as to the seriousness of the injury) is only resolved when Rivers reads a letter from him after the end of hostilities.

In the meantime, Prior goes before the medical board and is assigned to home duties, probably because of his asthma, which means he cannot be sure in himself as to whether he is truly cured. He is last seen in bed with Sarah.

The final scenes show Wilfred Owen's body in France after the end of the conflict and Rivers' sadness on hearing of it. He is seen crying as he reads Owen's "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young" that Sassoon sent him. The visual motif of moving through a canal tunnel which has been Owen's dream is now resolved. Unlike other patients' dreams which are the shocking visualisations of the traumatic events which resulted in their breakdowns, Owen's is the premonition of his own death.



During the 1997 BAFTA awards, Regeneration was nominated for the Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film but lost to Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth. During the 1998 British Independent Film Awards, Jonathan Pryce was nominated for Best Performance by a British Actor in an Independent Film, Gillies MacKinnon was also nominated in the Best British Director of an Independent Film category. Because the film was a British-Canadian co-production, Regeneration received various nominations at the Canadian Genie Awards, including Best Achievement in Direction (Gillies MacKinnon), Best Motion Picture (Allan Scott, Peter Simpson), Best Music Score (Mychael Danna), Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Jonathan Pryce) and Best Screenplay (Allan Scott).


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