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Benefit of the Doubt (1967)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

A theatre stage. At the centre of a tableau of silent actors, a man in a light grey suit with black gloves picks butterflies from a black box. As he does so, he removes a cigarette lighter from his pocket and lights it. An actor playing a Buddhist monk in meditation is then set alight.

Press conference. Director Peter Brook and others involved in the play discuss the complex problem of achieving meaningful action in response to the war.

A scene in the play relates the 'History of Vietnam'. On the back of a flatbed truck, in makeshift costumes, actors illustrate Vietnamese legends of their origins and the rise of the Communist Party.

An almost naked actor, embodying the country of Vietnam, is pulled to and fro by the other actors and painted. A chaotic scene ensues and the exhausted actor is finally pulled away from the canvas he was writhing on. The actors hold up the resulting painting.

Actors playing commanders of American forces relate their experiences in Vietnam and their opinions of the conflict. A man enters talking through a microphone in the style of a sleazy game show host and sings a song in crooner style.

Assistant director Geoffrey Reeves relates, in an interview, how Adrian Mitchell's libretto originated from documentary material. He explains how a scene based on a military briefing was re-performed based on an actual transcript.

Actor Ian Hogg, in interview, discusses the improvisation of the play's central musical ensemble piece, 'Zapping the Cong', about the ecstasy of battle experienced by American soldiers.

The 'Zapping the Cong' scene is performed. Some actors are torturing others, who are prisoners of war. One actor has a dog's lead placed around his neck and is handed a microphone; he takes the lead vocal of the song, throughout which the beatings take place.

Quaker Meeting: a scene in which a young Quaker sets fire to himself on the steps of the Pentagon in protest at the war. On-lookers sat in a circle around the immolated actor give memorial speeches regarding the circumstances that drove the man to such an act.

Interview with Peter Brook. Brook discusses the inner contradictions of the American mentality during the Vietnam War: that a soldier could one moment drop bombs on a people and the next medically care for them.

The stage breaks down into chaos. Scenes of the horrors of war-victims are acted out. Actors pass in a line as two men in army fatigues beat them and then the following two actors, in medics' white coats, care for their wounds. A drill sergeant introduces enlisted men to training in preparation for being tortured. A journalist interviews an army Colonel, both with brown paper bags over their heads, about the possible conquest of Communist territories using nuclear weapons. Zombie-like figures shuffle moaning onto the stage with brown paper bags over their heads, presumably victims of an imagined nuclear strike. A soldier ushers them forth with the butt of his rifle.

Interview with Peter Brook. Brook explains that the British people are connected with America and are therefore in some way implicated in the war. This is the principle from which the play, US, takes its title.

Glenda Jackson sits with a man in a black leather jacket. They play a word association game, which leads the man into the question of whether it is acceptable to hate Americans, but not people of other races.

Interview with Glenda Jackson. She maintains that no opinion regarding the war can ever approach the experiences of those who are involved in it. Jackson delivers a soliloquy imagining the war coming to Middle England. An actual protest at the US embassy at Grosvenor Square, with Peter Brook present.

Return to the man in black gloves releasing butterflies. Brook discusses the British legal principle that when decisions become a matter of life and death, the accused must be given the benefit of the doubt. Politicians in prosecuting wars are rarely prepared to consider that rule. The man uses the cigarette lighter to torch a butterfly. The entire cast solemnly lower their heads.