Heartland Film Festival: For a war film, ‘Instrument of War’ is surprisingly uplifting
Adam Thomas Anderegg and Russ Kendall are no strangers to Heartland Film Festival. Last year they premiered their film Winter Thaw on the Castleton screens, and this year they’ve brought two new ones with them: the music documentary The Man in the Camo Jacket and the world premiere of the Best Narrative Premiere Award nominee Instrument of War.
Instrument of War takes its title very literally. It tells the true story of Clair Cline (Jack Ashton), a US soldier who was shot down during WWII and taken to a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp. Inspired by a fellow prisoner who built a radio out of “this and that”, Clair spends the bulk of the film pooling together various resources to build a violin from scratch.
Upon being taken in, the first person he meets is Larry Packer (Daniel Betts), a high-ranking US military official who introduces him to the rest of his barracks. Notably, this is when he first meets Reed “Whit” Whitaker (Elliot James Langridge), a charcoal artist with whom Clair ends up becoming very close. Clair commissions Whit for a drawing of his girlfriend Anne (Andrea Deck), and soon asks him if he can draw a violin too.
This film does a prime job of introducing a large amount of characters and quickly making the audience feel connected to each one. When one of the men unexpectedly dies relatively early in the movie, it is legitimately heartbreaking even though we haven’t had much time to get to know him. Meanwhile Frank, the most reserved of the prisoners, ends up delivering some of the most powerful lines of the movie when he discusses meeting the family of someone he killed, challenging the belief that anyone is the good guy when it comes to war.
But even though it is a war film, at times it can be strangely fun to watch, especially in the resourcefulness of the people detained at the prison camp. These men bribe guards and trade each other for supplies and food, with one offering to fight Clair in exchange for violin materials. Another offers his contribution at the price of catching him a “roof rabbit” (aka a cat), which he then proceeds to eat for dinner. He collects scraps of wood and then scrapes glue off the bottom of his chair to try to put together his new instrument.
Sadly, this fascinating momentum is halted at one point when Clair asks if anyone has a violin bow. Why would anyone have a violin bow? It’s a prison camp in a regime that burns books in its spare time. But sure enough, one of the men in Clair’s barracks props open the window using none other than a violin bow, which he gives him free of charge. This is a minor moment and it doesn’t kill the movie by far, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that it probably would have been much more interesting to see how Clair would have crafted a bow on his own.
The climactic moment of the film requires a similarly high caliber of suspension of disbelief, but it’s so well executed that it ends up being more forgivable. This is due in part to the musical magic powers of Mark Isham, whose work you may have heard in countless soundtracks including A River Runs Through It and October Sky. Music plays a crucial role in the plot of this movie, so it certainly helps to have such an accomplished composer as Isham to back it up.
Perhaps the most incredible part of Instrument of War is that it is a true story. Because the real Clair Cline died years ago and rarely ever told this story in public, there were a lot of gaps left for the filmmakers to fill in on their own. But with a little help from Clair’s children (who now populate several of the most esteemed orchestras in the country), they pulled together a fully realized retelling that proved to be worthy of a slot on the big screen.
Catch Instrument of War on BYUtv this Thanksgiving, then stream it for free on the channel’s website.
Featured image from IMDb
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