My Boy Jack
Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle
My Boy Jack is the story of author Rudyard Kipling’s son John, who in 1915, died at the age of just 18 years and one day. It was a tragedy that should never have happened.
John (or Jack as he was known) was extremely short-sighted and as a result was turned down by both the Royal Navy and the Army. And this, it’s important to remember, was before the days of conscription and at a time when young men were urgently needed to fight in World War One.
And so, filled with patriotic fervour and taking advantage of his position in society, Kipling senior ‘pulled strings’ and Jack got his commission in the Irish Guards. And make no mistake, Jack was a willing participant.
A period of training ensued, after which Jack was posted to France. But with British losses sickeningly high, it was really only a matter of time before he was reported ‘missing in action’. Initially, his parents and beloved sister Elsie refused to contemplate the worst but after embarking on a frantic search for him, Jack’s fate was finally revealed – he had died at the Battle of Loos leading his men on a doomed assault of a German machine-gun post.
Actor David Haig, who not only wrote My Boy Jack but also took on the role of Rudyard Kipling, told the Sunday Times what compelled him to dramatize Jack’s story:
“The clash between Kipling’s rigorous adherence to his own principles and his magical qualities as a loving father contain the classic ingredients of a tragedy evocative of King Lear. It was this compelling paradox that led me to write My Boy Jack, first as a play and then a film.”
Haig is, of course, no stranger to First World War drama having starred in the West End production of Journey’s End. Here though, with Kipling’s extraordinary gift of rhetoric, we see him making impassioned speeches encouraging recruitment – something Kipling actually did until 1916 when public conscription began. However, I have to say, his fervour did at times border on the fanatical which, in today’s uncertain climate made me a little uneasy.
And gifted though Kipling most certainly was, I found his penchant for story-telling somewhat annoying. For example, if I had just lost a son, the last thing I would have wanted was a story. Apparently not so his wife Carrie who docilely acquiesced.
Which brings me to Kim Cattrall who, in a role far removed from her Sex and the City persona, played Carrie, a woman who quietly accepted her husband’s decisions – even though they broke her heart. But I guess that was a woman’s duty at the beginning of the twentieth century. Carrie was, however, sensitively portrayed by Cattrall and my only other gripe is that she didn’t sob her heart out when the truth was finally revealed – as I’m sure most mothers would.
And so to Daniel Radcliffe who imbued Jack with a quiet dignity and the determination to succeed against insurmountable odds; the latter never more so than during target practice in heavy rain. In Radcliffe’s capable hands, Jack was an unassuming young man who quickly earned the respect of his men who, in appalling conditions and fearful for their own lives, greeted him on his 18th birthday with a chorus of Happy Birthday, a scene that was deeply moving, particularly so in view of the impending disaster.
My Boy Jack doesn’t balk at depicting war as it really is or indeed, gloss over the fear men felt. And why should it? After all, war is ugly and only a fool would not be afraid.
As for Jack’s fate, “there are two credible accounts of how he died – he was either obliterated by a mortar shell or he was shot.” As Haig further explained to the Sunday Times, “The version I favour was given by a fellow guardsman two years later to Kipling’s friend Rider Haggard. The guardsman described how he had seen Kipling shot through the jaw, leaving nothing below the top lip, and hearing him crying in pain.”
In My Boy Jack, the account, intercut with images of Jack, is given direct to Kipling’s family, including his sister Elsie (Carey Mulligan) whose grief actually brought tears my eyes. In fact, I found the whole thing a sobering (but worthwhile) experience, and I’m not sure I could watch it again…..
An exhibition, also entitled My Boy Jack, is currently on display at the Imperial War Museum.