Tuesday, September 08, 2015

What Makes ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ a Comedy and Anti-War Masterpiece

Making my “Top 10 TV Shows That Ran Before I Was Born” list, I became inspired to rewatch the Blackadder series (no. 2 in the list, btw) for the nth time.  It’s quite easy to binge-watch since, not only is it a very delightful watch, but it’s also relatively short.  Each series only have six episodes, around 30 minutes each.  That’s a total of 12 hours of viewing, more or less.  The whole thing reminded me why I loved it ever since, and affirmed my opinion that it really gets much better with each series. 

This means that Blackadder Goes Forth – the fourth and last – is the best of them, and I think everyone who have seen all four series will agree with me.  First of all, it is objectively the funniest and cleverest.  Secondly, its opening sequence is the catchiest, most amiable, and most entertaining – the characters are introduced while in a march along a medley of “The British Grenadiers” (the iconic marching anthem of the British military, dating back to the 17th century) and the Blackadder theme (seriously, rewatching the title sequences over and over again provides much fun already). 

But what really makes Blackadder Goes Forth impressively stand out above the rest is the fact that it is able to convey a powerful anti-war message through its brilliant satirical insights on war without trivializing the sobering period of human history the series is set upon and without disrespecting the real-life people who took part in it.  And this facet personally had much impact on me.    

As a kid, I thought of war as a romantic, glorious thing.  I loved playing with my collection of toy soldiers and pellet guns.  My favorite Bible stories were those that featured epic battles.  I enjoyed the G.I. Joe cartoons and comics.  I was thrilled when reading about wars in history.  I devoured everything – documentaries, essays, books, movies, etc. – that featured anything relating to war, whether it’s historical or fictional.  I drew battle scenes during idle times in school.  When I saw Saving Private Ryan and other war movies, I unconsciously dismissed the war horrors it portrayed and instead reveled on the exciting violence and explosions of its action scenes.  Yes, I did have some understanding already that time that war is not all glory and thrills, but I didn’t really quite grasp yet the magnitude of the other side of the coin.  To me then, the deaths were mere numbers, the devastation mere black and white pictures, and the accounts and narratives mere objects to take fascination on.  

It was only with Blackadder Goes Forth that really made me deeply understand for the first time that war is indeed a terrible, terrible thing.  It was not Saving Private Ryan or any war/anti-war movies that made me reflect on this.  Not history books or photos.  Not even Life Is Beautiful (an Oscar-winning Italian film back in the 90’s, which I had enjoyed) – it almost did, but not entirely.  It was ironically the sitcom Blackadder Goes Forth that didSince then, I’ve seen this series many times already, but each time gives the same impact on me as the first time I saw it.

Set in the Western Front trenches of World War I, Blackadder Goes Forth focuses on Captain Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) as he attempts to be removed from his post in the trenches before another “big push” is ordered by his eccentric, buffoonish commander, General Melchett (Stephen Fry).   Blackadder isn’t necessarily a coward.  It’s just that he wants to avoid being sent over the top on the infamous “No Man’s Land” because it will result to certain death.  He doesn't want to die in such utterly meaningless manner.

So in the first five episodes, we see Blackadder jump at every opportunity and scheme that will allow him to leave the trenches, which ultimately fails in the end.  As to be expected, hilarity ensues during these misadventures.  But more than that, through its satirical gags and dialogue, subtle but provocative anti-war sentiments are delivered.  Though war logic is exaggerated so it can be lampooned, the lingering thought that it leaves would reveal in retrospect that the realistic version of it is actually as absurd and foolish.

For example, in the first episode, General Melchett heartens one of the soldiers, reminding him that if should he falter, he should just remind himself that the general is behind him.  To which Captain Blackadder bitterly comments, “About 35 miles behind you.”  Funny, but thought-provoking as well.

But the clincher is the final episode, “Goodbyeee” – which is definitely one of the most powerful finales in TV history (SPOILERS from this point on). With the order for the “big push” finally given, Blackadder makes another ploy to be sent away by pretending to be mad.  But this, like his previous schemes, doesn’t work.  As he muses later on, “Who would have noticed another madman round here?”

The episode plays out that is typical of the show: funny and smart.  But around its 17-minute mark, it starts giving indications that this episode is going to be different.  With the “big push” nearing, Blackadder and his men reminisce the past – realizing that many of their acquaintances are dead already.  Then Private Baldrick (Tony Robinson) remarks, “Why can't we just stop, sir? Why can't we just say, ‘No more killing; let's all go home’? Why would it be stupid just to pack it in, sir?  Why?”  I was taken aback.  The series has at least three moronic characters, and Baldrick is the stupidest of them.  This kind of insight coming out of Baldrick is something atypical.

The next scene, General Melchett informs Captain Kevin Darling (Tim McInnerny), who serves as his personal assistant, that he will be assigned to the frontlines immediately to join the “big push.”  Much to Darling’s horror, Melchett misguidedly believes that he is favoring Darling by letting him join the “fun and games.”  On the contrary, “folding the general’s pajamas”, as Darling puts it, is something he prefers over being sent to the trenches since, despite any discomfort and humiliation he might receive as the general’s aide, he’s at least safe away from the conflict.  Darling tries to protest, but the general – erroneously believing that Darling is simply having a hard time parting ways because of his loyalty and affection for him – “unselfishly” cuts him off and assures him that it’s okay.

Throughout the series, Darling has served as the primary antagonist of the story, being Blackadder’s rival and tormentor (and vice versa).  Thus, there are some justified laughs to be had from his misfortune.  But any satisfaction is restrained, and not really something cheer-worthy.  In fact, when Darling joins Blackadder in the dugout, he doesn’t mock him about it, but simply welcomes him, “Here to join us for the last waltz?”  (At this point, emotion was already welling inside me as I watched.)  Blackadder – as well as any decent audience – understands that, in this particular context, there is no pleasure in seeing a man – even as snobbish as Darling – being sent to certain death.

Finally, it’s the simple admission from the idealistic, enthusiastic, but dim-witted Lieutenant George (Hugh Laurie) that broke my heart: “I’m scared, sir.”  (Private Baldrick echoes the same sentiment.)  George adds, “I don’t want to die.  I’m not overkeen on dying at all, sir.”  

Up until that point, George has been depicted to be seemingly uncaring or ignorant of the perils of war – consistently thrilled of the opportunity to fight for “king and country.”  It probably finally dawned on him at that point that the thing he feels is “bloomin'ell worth it” (as he claimed earlier in the episode) isn’t really worth dying for.  Hence, the unexpected, innocent honesty makes the scene devastating.  

My eyes were misty, and a lump had formed in my throat.

As the call to assemble is given, the script makes a hilarious, dark joke in a likely attempt to ease tension…
Captain Blackadder: “Don't forget your stick, Lieutenant.”
Lt. George: “Oh no, sir -- wouldn't want to face a machine gun without this!”
(I’m not sure if George is being sarcastic, or has reverted to his usual personality.)

With the men lining up outside, I was still expecting – wishing – that something – preferably, a comedic something – would happen at the last second that would prevent them from participating in this “big push.”  For a second, it seemed that was going to be so…
Captain Darling: “Listen! Our guns have stopped.”
Lt. George: “You don't think...?”
Private Baldrick: “Maybe the war's over. Maybe it's peace!”
Lt. George: “Well, hurrah! The big knobs have gone round the table and yanked the iron out of the fire!”

But when Darling exclaims, “Thank God! We lived through it! The Great War: 1914-1917,” the small flicker of hope vanishes.  It reminded me that the year was still 1917 in that story.  I know my history.  World War I ended in 1918.

The more cautious and cynical Blackadder deflates the men’s wishful thinking by bitterly commenting, “I'm afraid not.  The guns have stopped because we're about to attack. Not even our generals are mad enough to shell their own men.  They think it's far more sporting to let the Germans do it.”

The men puts a foot forward, waits for the signal to go over the top.  Blackadder mutters a “Good luck, everyone” before the whistle to advance is blown.

With a yell, the men go over the top and charges.  They are met with German gunfire.  The scene plays in slow motion.  Explosions and smoke and dirt fill the shot.  Sad piano music plays in the background.  The scene shifts to the empty, devastating aftermath, which then gradually shifts to the peaceful, poppy fields as what it is now in present time.

The last episode has thoroughly made the characters shine.  They were revealed to be actually noble and courageous, despite the weaknesses they had shown throughout the series.  Even if they were already likable, the episode made the audience to care more deeply and affectionately for them.  And because the attachment has been established firmly, the tragic ending was emphatic.  It hurt.  Through this, the show is able to effectively make these characters represent the countless brave men that perished at the hands of the hellish madness of War, who equally deserves – if not twice as much – the respect, appreciation, and heartbreak that I felt for Blackadder and his men.

How the show built up and executed everything going into that finale – all that comedy unexpectedly turning towards that beautiful, heartbreaking ending – is just brilliant.  I was laughing all throughout the series, and then, just like that, the final minutes pulled the rug under me.  The impact of the 180o turn in its tone effortlessly provoked reflection – becoming a forceful reminder of the dreadful reality that the show is based upon.

It’s one of the most powerful TV viewing moments I’ve ever had.  Thank you, Star World, for rerunning this awesome show for the tween me (was around 10 to 12 years old when I saw Blackadder Goes Forth for the first time).

Blackadder Goes Forth is a work of pure genius.  It pulls off making a comedy out of a sensitive topic without being offensive.  Compare that to the comedy philosophy of today that leans more on being intentionally crude and offensive to earn laughs.  So not only does Blackadder Goes Forth achieve first-rate comedy, but class and depth as well, thus, unhindered by pretentiousness in its delivery of an anti-war message that works.

War still fascinates me as a topic, I still enjoy it if it’s depicted in the context of fiction, and I still believe that war – or any dark, delicate themes, for that matter – always has room for humor, if it’s executed with thoughtfulness and respect.  Moreover, I’m not really a radical pacifist – I’m not ignorant of its unavoidable necessity in some cases in this depraved world.  However, war is something that I believe shouldn’t be treated trivially or celebrated by itself.  Blackadder Goes Forth taught me that.  

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