If you’re heading to see World War I drama Testament of Youth in the new year, make sure you’re armed with a packet of tissues. The true tale of author Vera Brittain’s teenage years – made famous by her best-selling memoir – is brimming with emotional turmoil as she sent her fiancé Roland, brother Edward and close friend Victor to fight at the front.
The upcoming film, which stars a terrific Alicia Vikander as Brittain opposite Kit Harington, Taron Egerton and Colin Morgan, recounts in stark detail the horrors of life both on the front and back home as those left behind fretted over the fate of their loved ones.
“The idea of leaving your girlfriend and maybe never seeing them is something, thankfully, I haven’t experienced,” Harington, who plays Roland, tells RadioTimes.com. “Even soldiers nowadays… there’s a much greater chance they’ll come home than then.”
After witnessing such horrors, it beggars belief that the same men were forced, just two decades later, to send their sons to do battle with Germany once again – but Harington reckons the desire to fight for Queen and country no longer exists in today’s society.
“These wars – definitely the First World War – they were indoctrinated, these young men, into believing. There’s a part in Testament of Youth where their head teacher is saying, ‘Do your duty for honour, for your country’ and that’s what they were taught.
“We don’t have that now, we’re far more cynical. They were completely different. They looked at their nation and their duty in a completely different way.
“We don’t have that patriotism now, I think thankfully. I don’t really believe in patriotism. I think it breeds small-mindedness. I believe in western ideals but I don’t believe in the idea of King and country. I’m not anti-monarchy – I like the monarchy, thoroughly nice guys – but I don’t really believe in flying the flag.”
A century on, Testament marks just one of many reminders of the sacrifice made by that generation, among them BBC’s season of WWI content and the Tower of London’s poppies installation to mark Remembrance Day in November.
But the Game of Thrones actor, who visited the display, adds that while “very clever”, the tribute was a statement against patriotism.
“It’s great to have a visual aid to how many people died – that’s one of the most moving things about it all – but, again, harking back to patriotism, I think the people who went and saw that and found it patriotic were wrong because it wasn’t about that. Actually, if you looked at it from an aerial thing, it was the Tower of London with a moat of blood and it was about maybe how those men were sent.”
So, did he deem the tribute anti-patriotic? “It was, I think. I think building a moat of blood around the Tower of London says a statement completely different to that patriotic sentiment.”
Britain’s experience – which led her to actively campaign for pacifism in the post-war years – is a vividly stark reminder of the scale of loss of life, something Harington has clearly meditated on since filming his scenes. “Who knows how many scientists we wiped out during that war, how many mathematicians, how much further we would have got in society now if those millions of young men hadn’t died?” It’s a sobering thought.
Testament of Youth is in UK cinemas from 16th January