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‘The Wipers Times’ a different kind of war comedy

Date: 8/20/2014

An intriguing story of World War I and a surprising good documentary from William Shatner are featured in this week’s DVD review column.

The Wipers Times

This BBC production first broadcast on PBS is based on a fascinating story from World War I. British Capt. Fred Roberts (Ben Chaplin) is a dedicated officer in charge of a unit that constructs and repairs the trenches that define the line of battle in Europe. While scavenging wood and metal to reinforce the trenches in the Belgium town of Ypres – which the British soldiers pronounce as “Wipers” – Roberts and his men find a working printing press and a supply of ink and paper.

Roberts and his second in command J.H. Pearson (played by Julian Rhind-Tutt) come up with an idea: why not print a satirical newspaper about the war and the Army brass? Luckily for the enterprise Roberts’ sergeant is a printer and typesetter.

The story is far more than a service comedy thumbing its nose at the brass. Yes, there is plenty of humor, especially in fantasy scenes in which the soldiers act out some of the material that appear in the newspaper in music hall style.
The film, however, also shows the impact of the war on the men focusing on Roberts, who prior to service was a mining engineer. There is one scene that is particularly striking as Roberts and his men charge out of the trenches as part of an offensive and storm into the German’s trenches. Shooting and stabbing the enemy soldiers, Roberts’ men make a hideous discovery: in the rush into the trench they failed to see the German soldiers were already dead – killed by an accidental gassing. The British soldiers are relieved at first and laugh, but Roberts’ mood quickly changes as he realized the incident is an example of the futility of the war.

Chaplin shines as Roberts and receives solid support from the rest of the cast, which includes Michael Palin as the understanding general, who allows the newspaper to continue despite calls to have Roberts and his men court-martialed.

An intelligent, moving depiction of the War to End all Wars, this film is certainly timely as we mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the conflict.

William Shatner’s Get a Life

I had little hope for this new documentary from the ubiquitous actor who has been wrestling with his identification as Capt. Kirk from the original “Star Trek” series and subsequent movies. Over the years, sometimes Shatner seems to revel in it and sometimes he seems to hate it.

The title of the film is based an the infamous “Saturday Night Live” skit from the 1980s in which Shatner implored fans to “get a life.”

Apparently he has never really understood the nature of “Star Trek” fandom – except to make a whole bunch of money off of them – and this film is his effort to try to understand why there are “Star Trek” fans and who are they.

Shatner wrote a book on the subject, but apparently still had questions about the phenomena of fandom.

Perhaps more than any other mainstream effort I’ve ever seen, Shatner succeeds in delivering an explanation about the nature of being a fan, much of it from interviews with college professors, psychiatrists and Robert Walter, president of The Joseph Campbell Foundation.

Beyond the fact that “Star Trek” fans range from scientists and members of the military and not are just single guys living in their parents’ basement, Shatner’s interview subjects discuss the important of myth in the human experience and why people chose to live the myth. It’s actually very interesting.

If you watch the film, be sure to watch the deleted scenes as they offer additional insight.

While I don’t think of myself as a “Star Trek” fan, I am a fan of other things and this movie offers some valuable insights into that mindset.