Radio Times, May 28 - June 3, 1988, by Robert Fox

Battle for Life

At his moment of triumph in the Falklands, Lt Robert Lawrence was shot in the head. His struggle for survival is now the basis for BBC1’s film 'Tumbledown'.


Tumbledown is a sharp cone of rock rising from the bare Falklands landscape south-west of Port Stanley. As dawn broke on 14 June 1982 the summit was seized by the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards after one of the fiercest battles of the brief Falklands campaign: hours later the Argentine garrison in the islands surrendered.

In the final stages of the battle, in which pistols and bayonets were used, 3 Platoon of Right Flank Company cleared a heavy machine-gun post manned by men of the 5th Marines, one of the few regular units deployed by the Argentines in the conflict. As he stood in his moment of triumph, the platoon commander, Lieutenant Robert Lawrence, 21, was shot in the back of the head by a sniper. The high velocity bullet took away 40 per cent of his brain.

Besides being the name of a mountain and a battle, Tumbledown has come to be the metaphor of Robert Lawrence’s life from that moment—three years of rehabilitation, his leaving the army, of seeing his world in pieces and trying to reassemble them in a new order. It is in this sense that Charles Wood has used it as the title of his film based on Robert Lawrence’s experience which comes to BBC1 on Tuesday, directed by Richard Eyre.

Making Tumbledown has been part of the recovery process for Robert himself. He has worked on the film as a special consultant, and hopes that this will bring him full-time employment in television and film. For all the public exposure, Tumbledown must have been an intensely private affair.

Charles Wood, now Robert’s friend, says his film ‘challenges our preconceptions about what it is to be a soldier...that we send the young men out to fight and kill, and we feel guilty about it.’ In the end it is a drama drawn from the trauma of one young man. It is not a documentary about the Falklands campaign, nor the stuff of regimental history; the details on the conflict itself and the units and individuals concerned are sketchy.

Viewed from the top of Two Sisters, two-and-a-half miles away, the battle for Tumbledown looked like a strange fireworks display as artillery shells and illuminating rounds fired by the navy lit up the mountain covered with a thin layer of snow. It was to take six hours to get Robert Lawrence down to the dressing station at Fitzroy settlement. He lay outside the makeshift operating theatre for several hours, with no painkillers to console him, imagining he had been left till last as he was the least likely to survive.

From Fitzroy Robert Lawrence was transferred to the converted hospital ship SS Uganda, where he was not allowed to sleep for more than a few minutes for fear that he would slip into a coma. Once he woke from a nightmare to find himself attempting to strange a nurse.

Finally the flight home from Montevideo in Uruguay, and the story begins—of recuperation and rehabilitation, of the sense of abandonment and loss at leaving the army, and the new life in film and TV.

The main supporting cast in these episodes, in life as in the film itself, is the Lawrence family. John Lawrence had served 28 years in the RAF, retiring with the rank of wing commander, and is now assistant secretary at Lord’s. Jean Lawrence, the least voluble but one suspects most powerful member of the family, is a lecturer at London’s Westminster College.

John Lawrence has lived his son’s story with passionate intensity. The great moment of pride was the award of the Military Cross to Robert for his conduct and leadership in the battle. On the other hand he has taken up the weapons of pen and phone with alacrity against what he describes as the obtuseness of authority, and the misunderstanding of the press.

Today Lawrence father and son are very much a team, down to writing their memoir of events after the Falklands, When the Fighting Is Over, being published by Bloomsbury. John Lawrence is the model of a retired wing commander, down to the neatly trimmed RAF moustache. ‘But,’ he confesses, ‘though I wouldn’t say I’ve shifted sides politically, my view has changed quite a lot through all this.’

The first phase of recuperation for Robert Lawrence, once back in England, was a round of examinations and assessments, a sojourn at the Woolwich Hospital, and at a military rehabilitation centre.

The agony of recovery was compounded by the sense of loss in leaving the army. Father and son were enraged by a letter from the Military Secretary’s office announcing discharge from active service without even a medical: it was retracted quickly. There is an element of dramatic inevitability about the path of mutual misunderstanding traced by Robert Lawrence and the army.

As a teenage tearaway in the action-man mould—he had left his Scottish public school, Fettes, by mutual consent—the Scots Guards were to be his life. After his injury, he felt abandoned. In the film we see him undergoing the symptoms described by psychiatrists as the trauma of parental separation: anxiety, rage, and finally a gesture to emotional reconciliation.

When discharge came, much was mended in the flesh as well as the spirit. He could walk, which experts at first had feared might never happen, and, though, paralysed down his left side, his brain was in full vigour. He had received a pension and an initial payment from the South Atlantic Fund, a body he still likes to bombard with demands and questions, producing a diverting stream of correspondence.

At this point he was introduced by a mutual friend to Charles Wood, who interviewed him at length before producing a Tumbledown script. Charles Wood recalls: ‘He was still very frail, but I realised that Robert’s employment in the project would have to be part of the deal of making the film.’

Rejection and disappointment was to follow. Movie mogul David Puttnam considered the script but couldn’t in the end come to an agreement with the Lawrences. It  seemed that the script would never be filmed, until producer Richard Broke persuaded the BBC to make it, with Richard Eyre, soon to head the National Theatre, as director.

Filming was to produce testing and stressful times for the production team, their adviser Robert Lawrence, and his alter ego, the Lawrence of the drama played by Colin Firth. Robert Lawrence says his worst moments were reenacting the episode of the Fitzroy dressing station in a Nissen hut in Oxfordshire (he carries photographs of his wounds like a talisman).

Both Eyre and Broke are full of praise at the way Robert applied himself to learning his new trade. ‘I think he could certainly make a career in the film industry,’ says Broke. ‘I thought he might have ceased to function when he got cold, but in the event his stamina and resilience was astonishing.’

During the battle scenes on location in Wales Robert was in his element. ‘His contribution to the logistics of moving the extras and equipment up the mountain was brilliant,’ says Charles Wood. ‘If we still made epic films in this country he might have a role as a producer.’

For actor Colin Firth, playing Robert Lawrence has been a powerful experience. ‘At times it has been pleasant, at times very difficult,’ he said on location in London. ‘It might have been very tough having the real Robert by my side, but he was very helpful. I do worry, though, how Robert is going to get through all this. He has got to come home from the wars some time.’

In the past six months another form of production has absorbed Robert and his wife Tina—their young son Conrad, born just after filming was completed. ‘For someone like me it’s hard to find another stealing all the attention, so I come fifth in the pecking order after the baby, the house, the shopping, the dog.’ Otherwise it is a question of ‘cracking on with the future’, working for two films as production assistant and military adviser.

The next milestone is possible emigration at the end of the year to Australia. Opportunities in film and television production beckon, he feels. Above all there is the sun: cold can still affect him cruelly. There he should get the chance to come home from war at last and Robert Lawrence should conquer his private Tumbledown.

by Robert Fox, a special correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, reported the Falklands War for BBC Radio and is the author of Eyewitness Falklands (Metheun). The script of Tumbledown by Charles Wood is published by Penguin.

Article courtesy of SueH

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