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Sword of Honour
A TalkBack Production for Channel 4
Running time: 193 minutes
Cast: Daniel Craig, Megan Dodds, Richard Coyle, Leslie Phillips, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Katrin Cartlidge, Robert Daws, Guy Henry
Now that Daniel Craig is flying high as the new James Bond, DVD companies are snooping around their vaults for any of his past performances that they can capitalize on. While Craig created a solid body of pre-"Casino Royale" work in such diverse and well-regarded movies as "Enduring Love," "Sylvia," "Layer Cake," "The Mother" and "Road to Perdition," he paid his dues like everyone else in product that fell below the A level. Such as "Sword of Honour," a perfectly fine but unremarkable British miniseries from 2001, now brought to DVD by Brit-TV specialists Acorn Media. The World War II romantic drama -- based on Evelyn Waugh's trilogy of novels comprising "Men at Arms," "Officers and Gentlemen" and "Unconditional Surrender," written between 1952 and 1961 –- never made it to "Masterpiece Theatre" or any other U.S. TV outlet, and looking at it now, that's understandable.
Not that Craig is at fault. He brings the very Bond-like combination of compassion and cool confidence to the role of Guy Crouchback, a privileged vacationing thirtysomething who when we meet him is coming to the aid of a woman being hassled on the street of an Italian village by two Fascist soldiers. It's the late 1930s and the incident confirms Guy's suspicion that war is coming. He immediately returns to England determined to join up in some military capacity, but his age and his class keep most grunt work closed to him.
An opening, however, exists in a specialized brigade called the Halberdiers, and soon Guy is in uniform and training with a small group of comically inept soldiers under the leadership of a blustering Col. Blimp-esque officer. (In a funny scene that prefigures a similar but deadly serious scene in Tom Cruise's "Last Samurai," the bald, mustachioed drill sergeant, frustrated with his men's awful target shooting, puts himself in their line of fire and orders them to shoot. All miss badly, of course, except for Guy, who slyly slips some lead just past the officer's nose, which tells the old guy that he has at least one real soldier in his command.
In this ostensible war drama, there's precious little war. Guy tells his rich old dad, "I want to be in the war, I want to do some fighting," but it takes a while before he sees any kind of action: a brief, weakly directed nighttime reconnaissance mission to a beach in Sierra Leone. Despite making late, quick stops in Crete and Egypt that strain to connect with the rest of the story, Guy mostly sticks around England and Scotland, all the time playing the good, if independent-minded, soldier casting a withering eye on his mischievous comrades. Among them is Richard Coyle, the goofy Jeff of the Britcom "Coupling."
The series ambles along from one barely compelling story line to another before winding up in an out-of-left-field sequence in which Guy presses, Schindler-style, to relocate some Jewish refugees to safety. The one through line in the miniseries is the relationship between Guy and his beautiful ex-wife, Virginia (Megan Dodds); he still loves her, but she has a startling habit of marrying or sleeping with his friends and fellow soldiers.
The staccato feel of the series is due to the short-handing of three novels into a mere three and a half hours of screen time -– was it shaved down from something much longer? -- but the tonal erraticism is a more distressing problem.
"Sword of Honour" is presented on two DVDs in separate Amaray cases, slipped into a well-designed cardboard sleeve. The picture, presented in 16:9 widescreen, is nicely transferred from a pristine source, with Daniel Craig's piercing blue eyes in all their glory. The sound is Dolby Digital stereo.
The full-action main menu on each disc gives way to still-frame chapter menus (the action is divided into 12 chapters on the first DVD and 15 on the second).
As with many Acorn DVDs, there's not much to report after that. There are no commentaries or featurettes, just a seven-screen written bio of author Evelyn Waugh and limited filmographies of five cast members: Craig, Megan Dodds, Leslie Phillips, Richard Coyle and Julian Rhind-Tutt. The paperwork amounts to a single sheet listing the chapters.
Mainly of note due to the subsequent rise of its star, Daniel Craig, "Sword of Honour" is a handsome but thin adaptation of a trilogy of World War II novels by Evelyn Waugh. Craig is fine as a British soldier giving his all to save Europe, but the underproduced, underpopulated series needed more wit, drive, profundity and action; as it is, you suspect Danielle Steel had a hand in it.
Acorn Media got everything right in its magnificent 25th-anniversary DVD release of Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited," but both the material and presentation here fall far short of that high standard.