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Film Review: The Pacifist

Image credit: The Pacifist Short Film

Oxford, 1940. University College student John Fulljames prepares for his trial in which he plans to defend himself as a conscientious objector during the Second World War. Based on a true story, The Pacifist is a short film created by graduates of University College: the screenplay was written by Matthew Hardy and the film directed by Hardy and Jack Rennie. After three years of meticulous research and careful planning, the filmmakers shed light on a part of Univ’s history. 

‘The first cause of The Pacifist was Oxford’s architecture,’ stated Hardy. Seeing the premiere in University College, where the film was shot, brought the story to life. Scenes consist of college bedrooms, walking to the library, eating in halls, and walking past the Percy Shelley monument. The history of Oxford haunts the film, the eyes of portraits are lingered on as the plot unfolds. The unchanged architecture means the audience is able to see the Univ that John Fulljames lived in with ease; Hardy and Rennie are able to make the past seem not so far removed. 

The film is a period piece, yet it does not feel stuffy or irrelevant. It is mostly composed of conversations between characters, John Fulljames played by Levi Mattey, and Fulljames’ friends Leslie Herniman and John Yallop played by Jerry Mutulu Woolley and Chester Cain respectively. Hardy and Rennie are able to map a character’s mental decline poignantly through these conversations which eventually spiral out of control. Morgan Lefay, played by Martha West, is an interesting and eerie character who seems to swim in and out of the consciousness of John Fulljames.

The time period is established comfortably in the background; updates of the war are quietly spoken on radios and parties play loud music on gramophones. The costuming and accents are the only major distinction from today’s world, but the main preoccupation of the film, of an urgent refusal to die for a war no one will remember you for, allow the characters, particularly the protagonist, to have a raw emotion understandable to the present day. The amount of research and care that went into the creation of the film is obvious.

Levi Mattey excellently conveys internal distress that reaches a fever pitch when he realises he is alone in his drive for pacifism. Jerry Mutulu Woolley offers earnest reason and consolation, but it comes too late. The two best scenes use overlapping voices as Levi Mattey’s character breaks down in his room, and the audience gets a glimpse of what it was like inside his head. This is followed by Mattey stepping into the Percy Shelley memorial and touching the statute. This is the only comfort offered to him: that of a pale dead statue in a dark room. 

In addition to the exploration of war and vehement rejection of patriotism, the film also covers the ‘hub of Oxford’s colonialism’. The characters state dryly that they believe Oxford has yet to be bombed because of Hitler’s appreciation of the institution and admiration of figures such as Cecil Rhodes. Crucially, the film does not create an idealised or sanitised version of the past. Hardy (whose first film was a documentary titled Under the Shadow of Rhodes) and Rennie acknowledge the colonial and racist history which still pervades Oxford today. 

Go and watch The Pacifist now, showing at University College 10 Merton Street, or at the Castle Cinema in London from the 13th of May. To find out more go to https://www.univ.ox.ac.uk/news/the-pacifist/ or https://thepacifistshortfilm.com/about