Properly, 37 Days is a mini-series, but it was shown as a film at my local cinema, so I will treat it as such. Made by the BBC to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, it shows the behind-the-scenes action in the days between the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife (28 June 1914) and the declaration of war by Britain (4 August 1914).

It is narrated by two civil servants, one British and one German, both of whom feel themselves outsiders in their spheres, the Briton because he is a scholarship boy and the German because he is a liberal. One might expect, because of this putatively disinterested pose, because it purports to show both sides, and because after all it is a full century since hostilities broke out, that this series would be largely even-handed.

It is not. The Kaiser is deformed, mustachioed, and deranged, an overgrown boy with tin soldiers and mad eyes. His chief of staff is fat, loud, and war-mongering. His chancellor, though not a cartoon, has no qualms about picking on Serbia, and only those of prudence about picking on France. Everyone in government already talks with the pride of the Teutonic race. The Austrians are effete, degenerate, and ridiculous; the poor old emperor practically has cobwebs growing on his muttonchops. I suppose the allies do not fare too much better: the Czar is but briefly seen, being unkind to his unfortunate small son; the French ambassador is actually described as much too Gallic, and lives up to this accusation; the Belgian king, unfairly, looks merely old. The Dominions are not consulted.

All the war-mongering in Britain is of course pushed on to Winston Churchill’s already sloping shoulders. The Cabinet otherwise is absolved of any guilt. Asquith, the Prime Minister, is weary, Sir Edward Grey is well-meaning but both misled (by the unscrupulous Kaiser and his minions) and overwhelmed, Lloyd-George is principled, and various others resign in protest.

To its credit, this series does portray what must have been a critical period as both progressing logically and spinning out of all control, as old men in frock coats struggle to maintain their grasp on their own careers and their world-views. Both sides of the argument for war are articulated well in Cabinet. Lord Morley (played ably if perhaps a bit Scottishly by Bill Paterson) gives his reasons for reluctance, the human cost to the nation chief among them. Sir Edward Grey (in an unusually sympathetic rôle for Ian McDiarmid) replies with a cogent repudiation of isolation and pacifism: no British deaths, perhaps, but is that not cowardice in the face of such a conflagration; moreover, how can Britain deal with Europe after the conflict?

Otherwise, it is an attractive, though characteristically BBC, production. The costumes are fine but unremarkable (except the Austrian ambassador’s absurd neck-something–I hesitate to give it any of the names I know for such garments); the backgrounds are real and carefully shot, to show only sky and the Brandenburg Gate, for instance. Pensive yet suspenseful violins are the order of the day. Every elderly British actor is shoved into a dark coat, every unknown young one is pushed into shirtsleeves and stuck behind stacks of paper. Sinéad Cusack does nobly as Mrs. Asquith, a knowing and perfectly-dressed figure. The Germans are less familiar but you will recognize their faces from various other thankless parts in American and British films about the twentieth century.

Stray observations:

  • “Britain is not protected by the Channel; she is protected by the Navy.”
  • The cricket match in the park, during which Sir Edward has a serious conversation with the staggeringly urbane German ambassador Prince Lichnowsky, was just beautiful. Certainly it was shot to show what was at stake, the soon-to-be-exploded peace, but it was also simply gorgeous.
  • There is much, slightly heavy-handed, dramatic and other irony. The Germans mock the French for retreating 10 kilometers from the border so as not to provoke conflict: just getting in their practice, a joke we have all told a hundred times. There is a crack made that perhaps the Belgians would fire one shot and then line the roads as the Germans marched through. They did not.

Director: Justin Hardy
Rating: NR
Length: something not too far under three hours
Score: 3/5. Competent but not exceptional.