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Reservist, Before the War, and After the War, A (1902)

British Film Institute

Main image of Reservist, Before the War, and After the War, A (1902)
DirectorJames Williamson
Production CompanyWilliamson Kinematograph Company

A man returns from the war to a life of dire poverty.

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Released six months after A Soldier's Return (1902), James Williamson's A Reservist, Before the War and After the War is one of the most important films of its era, formally innovative in both its use of intertitles and its development of the earlier film's realism to encompass contemporary social criticism. This last point is underlined by Williamson's own description of the film as:

a picture story of an exceptionally pathetic character, referring particularly to the condition of many reservists during the period immediately following the late Boer War.

Like the much later Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette, Italy, d. Vittorio De Sica, 1948), Williamson tells the story of an unemployed man attempting to come to terms with widespread postwar poverty, forced into committing a crime merely to feed his starving family, and whose sole defender after capture is his small son. Although A Soldier's Return touched on the subject of the effect of the war on ordinary families, it ultimately played safe by neatly resolving everything into a postcard-perfect tableau of domestic bliss. A Reservist is much bleaker, its upbeat conclusion clearly only short-term, as the kindly policeman is presumably not going to continue funding the reservist's family out of his own pocket.

The film also stands out for its creative use of intertitles. There are just two, both exceptionally simple ('The Departure' and 'After the War'), but they each serve a dual function of not just imparting important information about the narrative but also signifying tonal changes. Although the first and second shots are visually identical, the happy family of the first has been plunged into despondency (at least on the part of the parents: one of many subtle touches is the way the boys gleefully play-fight while the reservist contemplates the far less attractive prospect of actual warfare), and the effect of the war is graphically shown in the transition to the third shot, where the same room is now stripped bare, the curtains and most of the furniture sold off to buy food.

When the reservist is forced to steal to survive, both his actions and their staging echo the opening of Stop Thief! (1901), but this time Williamson has given his thief a motive and excuse, and our response to the ensuing chase is much more ambivalent. In this respect, A Reservist anticipates Ken Loach's work by six decades, and stands up remarkably well even today.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
Complete film (4:47)
Little Match Seller, The (1902)
Soldier's Return, The (1902)
Stop Thief! (1901)
Troops Passing Over the Modder by Train (1899)
Williamson, James (1855-1933)
Social Realism