Top 10 Welsh films: Hedd Wyn

Generic image of a First World War trench and soldiers

Last updated: 25 May 2010

Hedd Wyn (1992)

Images threaded through Paul Turner's memorable Hedd Wyn are the last running through the consciousness of Ellis Evans, the poet of the Welsh language title, as his life ebbs away in the World War One battlefield and trench warfare at Passchendaele.

This movie is an absorbing tribute to the north Walian Merionethshire farmer (b.1887) who spoke openly of his failure to understand the combat or his friends' involvement in it, but was too glibly assessed by some as a Pacifist pure and simple.

The film gained Wales' first Hollywood Foreign Language category Oscar nomination (in 1994) - a fitting honour for a celebration of Evans, who was never able to revel in his own great triumph. His Bardic Chair at the 1917 Welsh National Eisteddfod, at Birkenhead, was awarded posthumously.

Turner treats Evans' poetry with due seriousness and fidelity, and the film gains much from the scripting contribution of Alun Llwyd, from the Llyn Peninsula, also a highly regarded north Wales poet and a winner of both Crown and Chair at the National Eisteddfod.

The film's evocation of the battlefield scenes at Pilkem Ridge is extraordinarily moving and intense and the images (especially of trench warfare and night skirmishes, with men caught in silhouette) might almost be 'found' or library footage, testimony to the skills of two long-serving, often unsung contributors to Welsh film, photography director Ray Orton and editor Chris Lawrence.

Paul Turner handles and melds the film's elements with sensitivity. He explores Evans' dominant passions, including his romances, and attempts to clarify the poet's stance in serving in the 1914-18 war after initial equivocation as his friends entered the conflict and had their lives wasted.

The film also shows how easily mere questioning and hesitation could be seen as cowardice (one or two scenes here inevitably echo those in Cardiff-born Andrew Grieve's admirable 1987 version of Bruce Chatwin's novel On The Black Hill, set on the Brecon hills and Black Mountains).

In far too many biographies these days the subject's work is largely forgotten in the rush to acquaint us with the private man (preferably with dubious peccadilloes). Here as much emphasis is on the poetry, which reflects great credit on all concerned. There's no doubt though that the film picks up interest and tension in the second half when Hedd Wyn begins his soldiering and the poet's sentiments seem ever more relevant.

The three big romances in the film are presented too episodically to involve us fully, and the physical introduction of a muse seems obvious and a little unnecessary.

Most will prefer to remember the care taken to establish the forces working on Hedd Wyn as he finds maturity as a young man, the chaos of those last trench scenes before the flashback's conclusion, and the compassionate treatment of Hedd Wyn's final moments. Thanks partly to John Hardy's always effective music, the last sequences have a downbeat, deeply affecting lyricism of their own.

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Mark Kermode

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