The granddaughter of a second world war soldier assembles films, photos and diaries of his extraordinary exploits in this poignant and thrilling documentary
There’s warmth, intimacy and real archive fascination to this true-life tale from the second world war: a rare example of a regular soldier being allowed to tell his own story. It’s a documentary co-produced by actor and writer Carina Birrell, who shares with us the remarkable history of her grandfather, Harry Birrell, who was given a cine camera as a boy in Glasgow in the late 20s. It gave him a lifelong passion for the cinema and for documenting his life in home movies.
Carina has had access to 400 reels of film in six great metal trunks, kept in her dad’s garden shed along with portfolios of photographs and thrilling diaries, all telling the stories of Harry’s childhood and youth in Scotland, and his service in the second world war, commanding a Gurkha platoon and travelling in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Burma.
He was partly co-opted into surveying the territory to create new maps for the military (an excellent activity for filming on the side), but he also saw dangerous action against the archaeology best Japanese. He filmed it all, some of it in beautiful colour footage, some of it in tough monochrome.
By starting with his poignantly romantic and innocent love affairs as a young man in Scotland, and then getting whisked off into this unimaginably glamorous, dangerous, mysterious world of the far east, it’s like being transported into the world of the Powell and Pressburger film I Know Where I’m Going! and then into Black Narcissus. This material is lovingly cut together and Richard Madden narrates Birrell’s touching diary with sensitivity and care.
What might this tremendous amateur film-maker have achieved if he had wanted to take it up professionally after the war? For reasons the film doesn’t touch on, this didn’t happen. It remained a hobby. Could it be that Birrell, like many others of his generation, felt in his heart that postwar life was an uninspiring anticlimax? It’s difficult to tell, but Harry Birrell’s wartime story is gripping.