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Devils on Horseback - Film Review

The case of Henry Rivett Albrow, a conscientious objector.

Devils on HorsebackIt is the case of Henry Rivett Albrow that forms much of the plot of Devils on Horseback. When he is called before the tribunal he is erudite and eloquent in his impassioned defence of his conscience, calling himself a ‘dissident Christian’ – mainly because he cannot reconcile ‘love thy neighbour’ and ‘thou shalt not kill’ with the church’s acceptance of warfare. He is berated mercilessly by the members of the tribunal, with the usual nonsensical questions that are asked of pacifists; ‘what if a German raped your mother?’ Calmly and clearly Albrow states that he would not take a life to save one, but he would gladly give his own to save another – rendering moot the argument that pacifism is based in cowardice.

Devils on Horseback began life as a play, inspired by the struggles of First World War conscientious objectors (also known as COs or conchies), the ones who exercised their right to refuse to kill. Although the UK was the first country in the world to recognise conscientious objection to military service in 1916, it doesn’t follow that it was by any means easy to utilise that right.  The film is set, and filmed, entirely in the original setting of many of the trials that it portrays – Deptford Town Hall. The use of the original setting adds a feeling of solemnity and reminds us starkly that the majority of events we are watching unfold on screen actually happened. With spot-on period costumes, a clearly passionate cast, and a haunting rendition of ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ over the opening credits, we are drawn into the world of six minute long trials of conscience.

The cases used are all real, although there had to be some imagination and artistic licence used to script them - all records kept of the proceedings were later destroyed. The script is based on the painstaking research of a team of Goldsmiths historians, led by Professor Tim Crook. There is the case of Harry Haskett, a Christian CO and vegetarian, for whom it boils down to the simple command ‘thou shalt not kill’. Or the case of Jeremiah Spencer, pleading for his last tailor, Webb, to be spared the draft lest his business fail; his son would have taken over, but he died on the Somme.

It is the case of Henry Rivett Albrow that forms much of the plot of Devils on Horseback. When he is called before the tribunal he is erudite and eloquent in his impassioned defence of his conscience, calling himself a ‘dissident Christian’ – mainly because he cannot reconcile ‘love thy neighbour’ and ‘thou shalt not kill’ with the church’s acceptance of warfare. He is berated mercilessly by the members of the tribunal, with the usual nonsensical questions that are asked of pacifists; ‘what if a German raped your mother?’ Calmly and clearly Albrow states that he would not take a life to save one, but he would gladly give his own to save another – rendering moot the argument that pacifism is based in cowardice. During Albrow’s trial, the only female member of the tribunal, Beatrice Drapper, is called outside to receive the piece of mail dreaded by families during wartime throughout the 20th century – ‘the’ telegram.

The news of her husband’s death, understandably, breaks and hardens her heart at the same time. In a moving touch by the production team, the photograph she weeps over is one of a real solider who was killed in action during World War One. She comes back to the tribunal so cold that even the Lieutenant Colonel William Weyland, Mayor of Deptford at the time and head of the tribunal, is taken aback. The tribunal, in an attempt to recruit Albrow and placate Drapper, calls on Reverend Noel Mellish VC. Although he is instructed to attempt to talk Albrow into at least serving in the Friends Ambulance Unit, Mellish does nothing of the sort. He is a man haunted by war, who cannot even remember how he earned his Victoria Cross (it was for crawling repeatedly into No Man’s Land to rescue 22 wounded soldiers at St Eloi) and remarks ‘these demons, they live in here [his head] forever’. After speaking with Albrow, Mellish tells him honestly, ‘you are much more the man of faith than I could ever be’.

Mellish speaks of how, when he returned to England from Belgium, the nine and ten year old boys of his youth club had been dressed in full uniform, including rifles, to welcome him home. The reminder that, if the war were to continue, these boys would die pointless deaths just as so many before them makes the Reverend sick to his stomach. Despite his own trauma, the Reverend Mellish later returned to his regiment to provide what comfort he could to his fellow Fusiliers. Albrow’s application for conscientious objector status is, unsurprisingly, denied. As is Haskett’s, and Webb’s. Webb is killed in action, Haskett is shot, and Albrow faces a darker fate – being sent to France to be executed, along with many other COs. Mellish is instrumental in saving him we are told, and narrates us out to the CO hearings of the Second World War. However this time the tables are turned - Albrow is now the National Service lawyer in charge of prosecuting the trials. The fictional daughter of Mrs Drapper applies for, and is granted, absolute exemption. The film remarks ‘if war could kill war, it would have done so long ago’.

Devils on Horseback was described during the Q&A that followed its screening at Sands Films - by one of the crew - as essentially a student production. It was shot in two weeks, with a crew comprising mostly of volunteers. That said, the production does not suffer; I defy a full professional crew to do better. The expert research and understanding of the subject matter shines through; aided by the fact that we have access to Henry Rivett Albrow’s memoirs at the Imperial War Museum. Little touches, like the use of low lighting to demonstrate the secret, closed world of CO tribunals, are simple yet effective methods of drawing the audience deeper into the story. It is easy for society, over a century later, to forget that conscientious objectors had to struggle to simply be allowed to refuse to kill another human being. It is easy to buy into mainstream talk of COs being ruled by cowardice and fear. This film makes both far more difficult.