CW: murder, gun violence, mental illness
On Tuesday 21st May 1940, a brief section in the news columns of the Liverpool Echo was headed: “Student Remanded Smiles To Friends From The Dock”. The case referred to the events of a few days prior, in which John Fulljames, a nineteen year old undergraduate of University College, Oxford, opened fire at fellow students from his bedroom window overlooking the Radcliffe Quad. In the process, he killed one and injured two others. The Pacifist, a short film detailing the days leading up to the event from Fulljames’ perspective, premiered at the college on 29th April this year, a few metres away from where, almost exactly eighty-two years prior, the event took place.
The Pacifist was put together by a team of recently graduated University College students. Matthew Hardy (2018, English) wrote the screenplay and collaborated on direction with Jack Rennie (2017, PPL). The premiere was held in a building overlooking Merton Street, late on a Friday evening. I attended it alone, and arrived a few minutes early. Not knowing anyone else in attendance at the ‘invite-only’ showing, I naturally feigned interest at the artwork in the foyer as a steady trail of college alumni, student peers, and relatives of those involved in the production filtered into the venue. Thankfully, this neat reminder of my social awkwardness did not last too long, and we were led upstairs to the lecture theatre where the screening took place.
The film begins with Fulljames, played by Levi Mattey, preparing for a trial of an altogether different kind to that described in the papers of 21st May. A conscientious objector, the eponymous ‘pacifist’ is intent on attaining a legal exemption from joining the Western Front. Fulljames’ psychological deterioration in the days before the date of his hearing constitute the film’s direct plot-line. Yet The Pacifist’s principal effect lies in the multiple perspectives in which it represents Fulljames. He is at once an avowed socialist and an Oxford aesthete, at times a genuine victim of incontrovertible circumstance, at others overly self-pitying and narcissistic. Hardy writes Fulljames’ echoic repetition of quotes from Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Matthew 24:6 alongside his own skittish ramblings. The effect is such that any judgement regarding the authenticity of Fulljames’ psychological affliction is brilliantly set against the self-consciously performative nature of its manifestation in the film.
Mattey’s performance deftly captures the subtleties of such a character, while his two friends (played by Jerry Mutulu Woolley and Chester Caine) provide well-executed foils from which to compare his increasingly disassociated identity. From as early as the opening scene, Fulljames’ anxious, anti-war stream of consciousness vocal overlays twee shots of him walking the grounds of his college. The atmosphere of much of the rest of the film rests on this form of juxtaposition. One evening, solitary bare-walled bedroom shots depict a sleepless Fulljames disturbed by a lavish college dinner party going on downstairs. This disturbance then transmutes into a dream-sequences set across two of the college’s most romantic sites: the chapel and the sculpture of Percy Shelley. At first, Fulljames’ feverishly anxious thoughts about the war echo in the background as we see him contemplating the statue outside its gated confines. In the most beautiful shot of the film, a silence suddenly falls as he climbs the gate and begins touching and embracing the sculpture. The pallid figure of the drowned Romantic poet provides the inspiration for the film’s main illustration, and this scene then transitions into the chapel. Here Fulljames’ skittish interior monologue begins again in earnest, as the spectre of one of the ladies from the party (played by Martha West) encircles him tauntingly.
Hardy carefully interweaves such scenes throughout the film, creating an atmosphere in which surface appearances consistently hint at the murkier realities which often comprise them. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s mise-en-scène. Beautiful establishing shots of Oxford come in intervals: its obsolete battlements and sandstone alleyways, the silhouetted spires of chapels and bell towers, dons cycling past in the sun. In an early dialogue between Fulljames and his friends, they debate rumours that Hitler was deliberately preserving the city, intending it as the new capital of a conquered Britain. Fulljames, as with the audience, is made conscious that the peacefulness of the wartime city is only sustained by its perceived suitability as the prize of a fascist dictator.
Even in the mid-twentieth century, Oxford remained a mecca for public schoolboys imbued with the fragile patriotic pretence which sustained the elite circles of a faded empire. At breakfast on the morning of the incident, Fulljames is said to have argued with the boys he would go on to shoot. The film depicts this scene with him defiantly railing against the misguided patriotism of the boys as they taunt him for supposedly turning his back on his country. “You know nothing of England!” he shouts, before resorting to a painfully Shelleyan cry of “I will not submit to these jealous gods”.
In the film’s end credits, it is revealed that Fulljames was admitted to Broadmoor, a high-security psychiatric hospital, following a diagnosis of ‘split mind’ disorder, or schizophrenia in contemporary terms. The Pacifist’s atmosphere hinges on a fulcrum which finely poises the supposedly ‘split’ nature of Fulljames’ inconsistent characteristics. It presents us with a unique kind of ‘conscientious objector’, whose eponymous ideology is represented with dark irony against the violence he goes on to commit.
On the same day as the headline of the Liverpool Echo, minor variations in the details of the case were published in provincial newspapers throughout the country. Each began with the same detail, that Fulljames had appeared in the dock “smartly dressed in tweed coat and flannel trousers”. The bathos of the unnecessary detail embodies much of what makes the student such an elusive character in the film. The image of the pretentiously apparelled nineteen-year-old smiling at his fellow students from the dock is at once eerie and sad. It is a minute detail which brilliantly hints at an ideologically flawed character, innocently ignorant of his own sheltered remove from reality. The Pacifist, in setting, circumstance, and characterisation, captures the atmosphere of this remove, eerily anticipating Fulljames’ final act.
Image credit: Andrew Shiva / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons