Thursday, September 27, 2018

Winnie the Pooh and War

A.A. Milne in the World War

The seemingly wistful author of Winnie the Pooh and other children’s stories was a morose war veteran trying to figure out how to amuse a lively young son. This bitter-sweet story is the heart of the 2017 film “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” which appeared recently on cable television. Scenes of cozy home front life suddenly explode into battlefield mayhem and back to awkward social scenes, as Milne and fellow trench warfare veterans try to maintain British composure. Astute film reviewers alerted audiences that this is not a warm and fuzzy story.

“A. A. Milne fought in the epic Battle of the Somme, in 1916, when a million men were killed or injured. It was one of the bloodiest battles in human history. Milne, already a playwright and a novelist, was among those wounded,” The New Yorker’s Robin Wright noted. “He went home shell-shocked, with all the haunting symptoms of what is today diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, or P.T.S.D.”

Hollywood Reporter reviewer Sheri Linden observed: “When a popped champagne cork or opening-night spotlight triggers flashbacks, he does his best to maintain a stiff upper lip.” But Milne’s flashback flinches at home and on walks in the woods make his preschool-age son, Christopher Robin, who prefers the nickname Billy, “as watchful and wary as he is hungry for paternal affection … Billy is an old soul with a knack for empathy, skillfully talking his war-damaged father out of his occasional panic attacks.” 

Father-son adventures of creating playful tales involving a teddy bear and other stuffed animals romping with a boy named Christopher Robin evolved, through Milne’s playwriting skills, into a wildly popular set of books with lively illustrations by E.H. Shepard, an artist who served as an artillery officer in the war. Billy later resented his father for turning private moments of childhood glee into glaring fame that triggered brutal harassment in boarding school. 

As the children’s books showered the reclusive author with fame and fortune, Milne’s wife savaged his plan to write a blockbuster book denouncing war. “What’d we fight that war for? Nothing’s changed,” he shouts. “I’ve had enough of making people laugh. I want to make them see!” His wife retorts: “You know what writing a book against war is like? It’s like writing a book against Wednesdays.”

Milne’s antiwar book, Peace with Honour, was brushed aside by the massive acclaim for the children’s stories and Europe’s militaristic marches toward another round of war. His son bitterly rejected royalties from the Pooh books and insisted on joining the army in the Second World War. In the end, in a throat-catching scene, Milne warily greets a battered young veteran who wearily trudges back home.

“The House at Pooh Corner stands in a glade between two dark shadows – the aftermath of one war that had just finished and the dread of one coming,” Frank Cottrell Boyce, the film’s screenwriter, wrote in The Guardian. “No one who fought in the first world war knew it was the first world war. On the contrary, they had been told that they were fighting the war that would end all wars. It must have been with the most bitter irony and failure, then, that Milne’s generation watched their children march away to a war that they had been told would never happen.”