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|At the Sharp End: The 2nd Battalion Royal Norfolk Regiment
(1998), Peter Hart
On August 12, 1915 the Sandringham Company - a group of volunteers from King George V's
royal estate - advanced into withering enemy fire during the disastrous Gallipoli campaign
and were never seen again. Eyewitnesses spoke
of a strange cloud or mist that enveloped the men before they disappeared, some observers
even claiming that the mist carried them heavenwards to safety. In 1919 Winston Churchill called the incident
"without doubt the greatest unsolved mystery of this century."
All The King's Men (not to be confused with Robert Penn Warren's classic novel about populist Huey Long nor the1949 Oscar-winning movie) is an ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre production based on newly discovered evidence of Sandringham Company's true fate. The film strikingly captures the last time where "gentlemen" still spoke of the glory of battle, and when British class structure made it seem worthwhile for men of a lower social station to sacrifice themselves for the good of their betters.
Queen Alexandria loves the boys of Sandringham Company mostly gardeners, grooms, and servants as if they're her own sons, and has misgivings about sending them off to represent the royal family in battle. Frank Beck has his misgivings, too - he's the royal estate manager who's known the men of the company since most of them were born. The king has ordered Beck to stay at home, on the grounds that he's too old to fight, but he feels uncomfortable letting his charges (some as young as 14) head off to war without him. Beck persuades Queen Alexandria to assign him as their Captain despite his advanced age. As the troops depart, she gives Beck an engraved gold pocket watch. While in Turkey, Beck keeps it set to Sandringham time. A thoughtful man, Beck knows his boys are not headed for glory. They arrive in Turkey short of rations and water, supplied with uselessly incorrect topographical maps, and led by mostly incompetent "gentleman" officers. "I'm not your father," he tells the men as they prepare for their fateful engagement with the enemy, "but I am your brother. And all I can promise in brotherhood is that I'll stand by your side and face what you face."
Filmed in large part on the actual Sandringham estate, the film features a first rate cast led by Maggie Smith as Queen Alexandria. She gives a richly textured performance. British television actor David Jason moves from his previous work in UK comedy series with aplomb; his Captain Beck is a quiet and complex study of a man torn between patriotism and pragmatism. Smith and Jason are ably supported by a large and capable ensemble, including Patrick Malahide as the company's world-weary, cynical physician, Capt. Howlett.
All The Kings Men is based on a book by the film's co-producer, Nigel McCrery, a former police officer who pored through official government records to deduce the full story of what actually happened to Sandringham Company. The film captures the terrible and touching innocence with which the men of England gladly marched off to find excitement and honor, but instead largely met disaster as the first "Great War" proved to be only the beginning of a string of increasingly bloody conflicts. Far from being merely a detective story, it's a moving film with a profound anti-war message.
- Bob Aulert