Though the subject sounds unassuming, there's great power in "Hope and Glory," a human comedy seen through the eyes of an incredulous 7-year-old, the shy and observant boy who grew up to write this warm and happy reverie. It's the power of childhood memories and family anecdotes burnished by retelling over time.
After years of blood and bullets, director John Boorman exorcises the fear that must have come from growing up in wartime London. The man who made "Deliverance" and "Exorcist II" now astounds and enchants us with this fond and funny little masterpiece that comes straight from the heart. It fills you up.
Herman Wouk might have written the exalted title, but this is no grand soldiers' vision. It's a neighborhood epic set in the suburbs where Boorman and his family spent World War II. The Germans didn't scare him half as much as the principal of his grade school, and that seems perfectly understandable as we see it here through his alter ego.
Sebastian Rice Edwards makes his acting debut as the hero Bill Rohan, an adorable boy's boy whose world changes one day while he fights an imaginary battle in his back yard. He knows this because "all the Sunday-morning lawn mowers stopped." Churchill declares war by radio and the fathers are soon off to the front, leaving London to the women and children. For boy-crazy girls and little boys, war was a theme park full of handsome soldiers and skies full of dogfights.
From Bill's perspective, toy soldiers are the only casualties of war (they melt in a fire) and neighborhood bullies the only clear and present danger. Blimps float overhead like big balloons and schoolchildren collect shrapnel souvenirs. The rubble makes the perfect playground and the air raids mean a chance to skip school. "Thank you, Adolf!" shouts one joyful girl, tossing her gas mask in the air.
Heightened awareness -- the sense of living life to the fullest -- underlies this blitz of memories, a jubilant celebration of just being alive. Like "My Life as a Dog" and "A Christmas Story," it is mostly the story of an ordinary family. It's just that this family lives in extraordinary times and war makes the commonplace wondrous. The Luftwaffe turns Rosehill Avenue into an ever-changing landscape and a nervous hilarity prevails as the home front becomes a battlefield.
"Hope and Glory" is a non-narrative mood piece composed of sentimental vignettes, like "The Human Comedy," that 1943 American memoir with Mickey Rooney. But this movie is never soggy or soppy, thanks to the virtue of the writing, the strength of the characters and the continuous sense of danger. Boorman allows no complacency, never letting us forget the threat to the Rohan family. He doesn't waste a line or a scene; each moment is as full of nuance and humanity as the more sober Italian war drama "The Night of the Shooting Stars."
The Rohans are elated when their modest middle-class house is spared, but grieve for their neighbors' loss. Bill and his 5-year-old sister Sue, played by the elfin Geraldine Muir in her debut, offer innocent solace when a playmate's mother is killed. They ask her if she wants to play. They don't know what else to do.
A Spitfire shoots down a Messerschmitt while the neighbors watch. Bill's mother Grace (Sarah Miles) shades her eyes as she looks up at the heavens like a farm woman searching the clouds for rain. A German pilot, played by Boorman's son Charley, is forced to parachute into a victory garden. The cocky flyboy winks at Bill's teen-age sister Dawn (Sammi Davis) as he's taken prisoner by the local constable. "Brussel sprouts," says the courteous lawman, naming the various vegetables as they walk off to jail.
Davis, who had a supporting part in "Mona Lisa," is bully as the tarty, willful Dawn, who draws mascara seams on her stockingless legs and pants after a Canadian soldier. "I'll just die if I can't have him," she declares. "Don't throw away love," says her mother. "Who said anything about love?" says Dawn, turning on her heel. The mother and daughter fight and then make up, sobbing, while Bill and Sue look down from the stairs. They're often befuddled by the mysteries of adult behavior, observed beyond the banister. "Don't worry, Sue," he says. "We're not going to be like them when we grow up. We're not like them now."
Bill's world is frothy with females who grab him up and kiss him till he escapes to the gang in the rubble clubhouse. Miles, heroic as the mother who cuddles the kids in the back-yard bomb shelter, has the movie's most complete part and most complex performance, but veteran actor Ian Bannen is vintage as the irascible grandfather, a traditional blustering Brit parodied to a fare-thee-well. Appalled by encroaching modernism and his four daughters' bad taste in husbands, the gruff curmudgeon glowers at an electrical tower. "I curse you, volt, watt and amp," he declares.
There's not a false performance or a flawed moment in this unexpected and unpredictable movie -- a wry, knee-high look, a momentous crisis taken down in size. It's what Woody Allen must have dreamed of when he made "Radio Days," which seems so predictably shallow in comparison to this super-realistic world where moans from the ruins mean couples in love and a little boy who dreams in newsreels wrinkles his nose at the mush.
"Hope and Glory" is so enjoyable you want it to be a 16-part mini-series. When it's over, you sit staring at the credits, as you would the last page of a good book, wishing for another chapter.
Hope and Glory is rated PG-13 and is playing at the MacArthur Circle.