Note: Although this article does not have World on Fire spoilers past Episode 3, the Sean Bean interview links contain spoilers for future episodes.
There’s an old joke in the nerd world: once Sean Bean is cast as a character in a film or TV show, that character is doomed to die. Every corner of fandom has their own Sean Bean death (R.I.P., Boromir), but there are, of course, the rare occasions when Bean survives on screen. Period drama fans remember well the heyday of the Sharpe series in the ’90s, and Millennials remember how Bean’s character in National Treasure was carted off to jail instead of killed. Bean is defying the odds yet again in PBS Masterpiece’s World War II drama World on Fire. In it, Bean plays Douglas Bennett, and he is currently defying the survival odds in a convenient and clever way designed to keep the audience engaged…
Bean’s Douglas Bennett is introduced to the audience in the very first World on Fire episode, when he bails his daughter Lois (Julia Brown) out of jail for protesting at a National Front rally. This also means an awkward meeting with her daughter’s boyfriend Harry (Jonah Hauer-King) and his mother Robina (Lesley Mannville). Later, we get to know Douglas even better, as we see him at work actively trying to convince people that pacifism is the answer to increased militarization.
As the season progresses, the war becomes an unavoidable source of stress and anxiety for Douglas, who acts as a somewhat rare example of a positive representation of the conscientious objector in the period war genre. A common theme throughout all of the World on Fire‘s plot lines is a focus on previously-untold World War II stories. Many dramas ignore or chastise the characters who represent the conscientious objectors, which sets a character like Douglas Bennett apart. Douglas has flaws, but he can also be admired. For Bean, this is one of the reasons why he was interested in the character.
“I’ve always been interested in how people like Douglas Bennett were shunned within that community,” Bean told the BBC. “They were ostracized, which must have been very, very difficult. You’re going totally against the propaganda and the general feeling of the country by actually standing up and saying, I’m a pacifist. That’s an incredibly hard and brave thing to do and you suffer for it.”
Many stories about WWII homefront rely on the women characters to convey anxiety about missing sons and other relatives, with male characters portrayed as stoic in the face of grief. Characters that share Douglas’ sentiments are often mocked or made to be villains. Too often, stories about pacifist characters rely on historical hindsight or present period attitudes on patriotism with no nuance or sympathy. Past that, PTSD is usually only discussed in terms of men currently fighting. Others depict the survivors of WWI as “old” or “crazy.” In World on Fire, however, the narrative never mocks Douglas for still suffering from the previous war, or how those experiences have led to his pacifist beliefs.
In addition to being a conscientious objector, Douglas is also a father. His relationship with Lois and his son Tom (Ewan Mitchell) is fraught with unresolved tension and shared grief for his late wife, who perhaps may have been better at handling their young adulthood. Parents in any era often have a tough time with young adult rebellion, but wartime means rebellion takes a different form. While Lois and Tom at first share in their father’s beliefs, both eventually realize the war is a chance to redefine their lives. By the end of Episode 2, Douglas has to admit defeat as Lois successfully auditions to perform for the troops and Tom enlists in the military.
Douglas’ kids succumbing to peer pressure and the desire for more independence is also a blow to his politics as a die-hard “conschie” or a conscientious objector to the war. During World War II, there were three main camps of anti-war sentiment: faith-based nonviolence movements from groups such as Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses; political factions opposed to the war; and World War I veterans who didn’t want to see history repeating itself. We see the last example in Douglas, who repeatedly tells Lois and Tom that the last war was fought for nothing. In the BBC interview, Bean noted Douglas was “mentally scarred and suffering from flashbacks, anxiety, insecurity and a slight leaning towards madness.”
Bean has had many roles as the action hero or the dangerous villain throughout his career, but World on Fire proves he can command just as much audience attention for quiet introspection as loud action scenes, with Douglas’ worry for Tom dominating Episode 3. Douglas couldn’t stop Tom from enlisting, but he wants to save someone else from years of PTSD; he tries to go back to normal by passing out the pacifist newspaper on the draft line. He retreats into his head as soon as he hears from someone in the crowd that there were injuries on the HMS Exeter, with Nancy Campbell’s (Helen Hunt) broadcast serving as the soundtrack to Douglas’ depression. He almost takes it out on the mailman delivering sheet music Lois ordered.
The intricate editing of Episode 3 frames Douglas’ panic about The Battle of River Plate, but also delivers on the irony of the situation. Douglas spends so much time imagining the fires on the ship, he doesn’t think about Lois. It’s clear that Lois was in charge of the domestic chores Douglas now neglects. She might be far away from the front lines, singing “After You’re Gone” in northern France, but now she’s facing her own uphill battle. Lois runs into Harry who is clearly upset she’s moving on with other guys, but he soon finds out she is pregnant with his baby. A grandchild may give Douglas some unexpected comfort and much-needed company in his empty house.
The second half of the season is sure to bring new conflicts for Douglas. How will he react to Lois’ pregnancy? What challenges will Tom’s recovery from the battle bring? Will he have any more run-ins with Robina? No matter what happens, Sean Bean’s Douglas allows the actor a chance to demonstrate his impressive range, and gives fans of the period war drama the opportunity to see a different kind of masculinity represented.
World on Fire airs Sunday nights on PBS Masterpiece.