Someone has played an immense joke on Evelyn Waugh.
A 2001 TV adaptation of Waugh’s Sword of Honour features Daniel Mr-Bond-In-Tiny-Swimtrunks Craig as the protagonist (I won’t say hero), Guy Crouchback, and treats the whole thing like swashbuckling tragi-glamour-war of the highest order.
People, this is laughable. Craig playing Crouchback is like Schwarzenegger playing Yossarian in Catch 22. Or, to extend this idea further:
– Angelina Jolie playing Jane Eyre
– Dawn French playing Estella Havisham
– Matt Lucas playing Dracula
– Anthony Hopkins playing Harry Potter.
It makes no sense. For rather than being an army-thriller, Sword of Honour is, at times, the British version of Catch 22. And while it doesn’t have the raw humour and surface lunacy of that work of genius, it has the same shocked bemusement at the undignified lunacy of war. And Crouchback is a timid, yearning, intellectual, looking to the war to save him by giving him purpose and community. I’m struggling to think of a suitable actor, but suffice to say it’s more Ben Whishaw (Q) than Craig (Bond.)
Sword of Honour doesn’t go as far as Catch-22 in its anti-war positioning. Like Heller, Waugh brings the madness of war to life with some exquisite humour, the wildness of the former replaced with a distinctly British tone that had me honking with laughter just the same. Ritchie-Hook, a fight-crazy Brigadier who lives only to “biff”, and his battle of wills with the energetically enigmatic Apthorpe over the latter’s antique Thunder Box (portable loo) is a comedic construct almost up to Heller’s best. Yet alongside these characters, there is redemption found in the brotherhood of soldiership and the opportunities in war to do meaningfully positive acts.
But the military is only one side of the novel, which fades as the story progresses. Originally 3 novels which Waugh extensively revised to make one, as he purportedly always intended, we see a distinct shift from the military to Guy as an individual throughout the narrative. He is a unique character, no stock portrait, and clearly drawn closely from Waugh’s own self-perception (the action has large swathes of autobiographical events.) Guy is a man apart, with an emptiness inside – formed by his own personality and buffed by his faith. As a Catholic who cannot divorce, his life is cut off by his wife leaving him, leaving him in a strange state of disconnection. With the dawn of war, he sees the opportunity for meaningful activity and re-connection with society which he throws himself into. He looks to the war as his saviour, but finds it a capricious and crazy force. He yearns for an external structure to which he can attach himself unquestioningly – what society, and religious faith, used to offer, but which now seem problematic if not defunct.
Over and above society, war and the army’s inability to provide the structure and purpose for which he craves, it is simply not in Guy’s character to become one of the gang. In fact, he is constantly drawing himself away, yearning for solitude just as he yearns for completeness through purpose and society. This internal conflict is intensely human and universal – it’s something I relate to knocking about in my decidedly non-military, cake-eating London life of 2013. Ultimately Guy does find the salvation he was looking for, though the last pages of the book, apparently a happy ending, trouble the reader that perhaps this has come at the cost of some elements of his essential self.
Good luck with capturing that nuance, Daniel.