Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Soldier's Return, The (1902)

British Film Institute

Main image of Soldier's Return, The (1902)
DirectorJames Williamson
Production CompanyWilliamson Kinematograph Company

A soldier returns from the war and tries to find out what has become of his elderly mother.

Show full synopsis

Released in June 1902, The Soldier's Return represents another important stage in James Williamson's development, in that it uses the multi-shot structure of his earlier Attack on a China Mission (1900) and Fire! (1901) to tell a much smaller-scale human drama.

Whereas the 'heroes' of the earlier films were undifferentiated groups of sailors and firemen, A Soldier's Return concentrates on a single character, attempting to put his life back together after returning from the war, and instead of declamatory, arm-waving histrionics, the performances are subtle and low-key. That this was a deliberate departure not just from Williamson's own previous work but that of his contemporaries is made clear by his catalogue entry, in which he describes the film as "a bit of real life; there is no suggestion of acting in this picture, and the setting is perfectly natural."

Williamson's film is therefore one of the very first authentic British social realist films, in that it uses the techniques of dramatic narrative construction and staging to tell a story that could conceivably have been depicted in one of Williamson's earlier actuality records (it was partly filmed at the real-life Brighton Workhouse). The acting is, of course, "acting" in the literal sense, but Williamson's denial emphasises that he wants his audience to appreciate the emotional truth of the film's story, not the entertainment value of the performances.

Although it is nowhere near as pointed as in A Reservist, Before the War and After the War, released six months later, A Soldier's Return is also noteworthy for its implied social criticism. Although it has a happy ending, it is clear that the war (presumably the Boer War, concluded that same year) caused a major upheaval in the lives of the soldier's family, with his father dying and his mother sent to the workhouse in the absence of any next of kin.

Unlike contemporaries like R.W.Paul and the Warwick Trading Company, whose Boer War films consisted of actual or reconstructed footage of military action, Williamson was more interested in the effect of the war on working-class people back in Britain, who would have made up a significant proportion of his audiences. He would return to and develop this theme in both A Reservist and the apparently lost Wait Till Jack Comes Home (1903).

Michael Brooke

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Complete film (2:29)
Reservist, Before the War, and After the War, A (1902)
Troops Passing Over the Modder by Train (1899)
Williamson, James (1855-1933)
Social Realism