By William Boyd
When I was preparing to shoot my World War I film The Trench (1999) I deliberately set myself two serious challenges. However the film turned out – good, bad or indifferent — I wanted to be able to put my hand on my heart and to say, first, that it was as factually accurate and as realistic as possible and, second, that it in no way sentimentalized or glorified the particular conflict it dealt with. These two criteria still seem to me to be very valid when it comes to evaluating and assessing war films of any era and of any war. I am currently writing a film about the 1st Afghan War of 1839-42, as it so happens, and I’m applying exactly the same injunctions to myself – absolute verisimilitude and absolute honesty. War and human conflict are horrible, disgusting and terrifying experiences. People can behave with supreme bravery and blameless self-sacrifice and also with abject bestiality and unsurpassed viciousness. Nothing is gained by any covert apologia for war such as ‘living life to full intensity’, or ‘forging brotherhood’ or any other gung-ho adrenaline-filled sentiment. War films that pander to such notions (and they are legion) distort the reality of war so dramatically that they enter various alternative worlds of genre-entertainment – adventure movies, comedies, fantasies, action films – or whatever. For any film to be considered as a serious war film and worthy of merit then, I would argue, my two challenges have to be met.
It’s an interesting thought-experiment to start grading war films in the light of these two conditions. Here is a random list of conspicuous failures, chosen off the top of my head: Where Eagles Dare, Kelly’s Heroes, The Dam Busters, Sergeant York, The Dirty Dozen, Inglorious Basterds,Pearl Harbor, The English Patient, The Battle of the Bulge, The Four Feathers, Zulu, The Cruel Sea,Saving Private Ryan. I could go on and on – a fact that indicates that most war films, even many of the most famous, fail my two-pronged test. Most war films are either hopelessly unrealistic portrayals or war or else participate in the sub-genres (action-adventure, adventure-comedy, action-romance etc) that I outlined above.
Let’s consider one of the most celebrated of them – Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. The opening sequence of the D-Day landings is commonly considered to be one of the most realistic portrayals of men under fire ever created. As a viewer you feel almost viscerally present. Cinematic technique replicates, as best it can, something of the appalling stress and violence US forces faced when assaulting well-defended Normandy beaches. So far, so good. But, Tom Hanks plays the film’s hero, an infantry captain – and when the film was made Tom Hanks was 41 years old: preposterously elderly to be leading an infantry company into action. Matters grow worse when, after the landing, Tom Hanks meets another captain, Captain Hamill, played by Ted Danson (age 51). It may seem pedantic to complain about the age of the actors playing purportedly young soldiers but you can’t claim absolute verisimilitude for your special effects (“never in the history of motion pictures has battle been so convincingly rendered”) if you then cast middle-aged actors as 20-year olds. In any event, the film swiftly becomes the familiar Hollywood variant of a handful of plucky Americans defeating the dehumanised might of the Wermacht and ceases to be worthy of consideration.
Time and again war films fall down when evaluated in the light of these two factors — strict realism or sly glorification. War novels are not exempt from these failings also, I should add. The gung-ho factor is always creeping in. And, if this is the case — if my argument stands — then the class of serious, admirable war film becomes very thinly populated. There are very few films, I believe, that accurately manage to convey either the nature of battle or the genuine experience of soldiers participating in war. We are talking, anyway, about a realistic approximation – filmed dramatisations are not real life whether we are dealing with the Battle for Iwo Jiwa, a prison breakout or a marriage in terminal decline. But we recognise authenticity in the art-form of cinema in the films we admire, criticise and reward – authenticity of emotion, of performance, of mise-en scène, of cathartic effect. The war film is almost as old as cinema itself yet its truly great exemplars are far rarer than we might suppose.
In my own case of The Trench, I addressed the problem of authenticity with as much diligence as I could muster. The film is set in a labyrinth of trenches during the 48 hours before the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and concerns a platoon of soldiers waiting to go over the top. Our historical advisor was Martin Middlebrook, author of the classic history of the battle, The First Day on the Somme. We also relied heavily on the expertise of the Association of Military Remembrance, Great War enthusiasts and re-enacters. Amongst our attempts to ‘get it right’ we had our actors’ uniforms broken down over a period of two weeks to ‘age’ them: talcum powder, water and dust being rubbed into the fibres so that they looked engrained with sweat and dirt. Our actors also had to dress themselves each day – no costume assistant wound on puttees or buckled webbing. Photographs of the trenches were pored over and reproduced with precise detail. When the film was released I was criticised for having “no mud”. Such is the mythology of the Great War nobody had bothered to check on the actuality: the Somme, pre-1916, was a quiet sector with well-made, deep trenches. The summer of 1916 had been dry and warm – before the battle the trenches were immaculate – solidly revetted and sandbagged, duckboards everywhere – mud-free.
Another detail was in the language. As writer and director, I was in a position to authorize the actors to swear as freely as they felt the situation demanded. As a result, the air in our trenches is distinctly blue — our young soldiers swear like troopers. Again this is entirely authentic: anyone who wants to know the utter profanity and coarseness of the language employed by the soldiers of the Great War should read Frederic Manning’s 1929 novel The Middle Parts of Fortune (also published, expurgated, as Her Privates We). Manning fought as an enlisted man at the the Somme and the Ancre. It is the greatest novel to have come out of World War I – the only contemporary work of fiction that displays the same power and impact of the war poetry.
Most importantly, however, I cast very young actors. Our oldest (Daniel Craig, playing the sergeant) was 31. Two of our actors were still at school about to take their A-levels. There is no disguising the adolescent face and most soldiers in any wars at any time are very young and most war films consistently fail to reproduce this. The patent youthfulness of our cast added to the film’s poignancy. By the very nature of the film’s subject the audience would know that most of them would not survive the morning of July 1st 1916. There was nothing “glorious” about their sacrifice.
I was inspired to make The Trench by a German TV series called Das Boot — about life on a U-boat attacking allied shipping in the Atlantic and elsewhere. It is both compelling and utterly realistic and makes almost every other “submarine movie” look absurd and fake. What is most telling about Das Boot is the overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, the sheer crowding proximity of the sailors, how they live and fight elbow to elbow. It struck me that by deliberately narrowing the canvas one might achieve the same effect with World War 1 — that the elongated confines of a trench were like the tin tube of a submarine; that soldiers in trenches endured the same sweaty proximity as submariners. The troglodyte world of the trench would become a sufficient arena to play out the drama of the Battle of the Somme. We would never leave this long, thin, vermiculated, eight-foot deep hole in the ground, the camera would never rise above ground level until the whistles blew and the soldiers swarmed out of their trenches into the lethal world beyond.
Das Boot was made for television (though later a shortened version was released as a film) and, interestingly, when it comes to answering the two challenges of dramatising war, television is often more successful than cinema. For example, the best film I have ever seen about soldiering in Northern Ireland was called Contact (directed by Alan Clark) and made for BBC 2. Equally, some of the best sequences of dramatised combat footage come from the WW II series Band of Brothers. Episode 2,Day of Days, seems to me to convey the authentic feel of actual fighting – US paratroopers attacking an artillery emplacement – than anything I have ever seen on the large screen. Similarly the HBO TV series Generation Kill gives a chasteningly accurate picture of the action of Gulf War 2 – far more disturbing than some more celebrated Iraq war movies.
This raises another moot point. Virtually all film-makers – writers, directors, actors – have no experience of combat so to what exact sense can we talk about the ‘reality’ of combat sequences? I think here one has to trust the instincts of the creative imagination and its ability to empathize. A well-functioning imagination can put itself in situations never-before-experienced – serious artists in any medium can imagine what it’s like to suffer emotions or undergo trauma without having to claim personal experience as the ultimate authority. Speaking for myself, my reading of eye-witness testimony, scrupulous research and certain scenes of filmed reportage have made me suspicious of most filmic versions of combat. No dramatised version, I suspect, can ever truly reproduce the experience of being under fire but some sensitive approximations may come close or at least give the uninitiated viewer a sense of the terror, sensory displacement, massive unleashed force and chaos of time-fracture that occurs on a battlefield. I believe there is a genuine responsibility on the part of film-makers to emphasise this in the depiction of combat. The more serious the war film the more disturbing and dislocating the presentation of actual fighting will be. The lurid video-game version that is all too prevalent in many of today’s war films is no more close to the reality than a comic book.
Not all war films are about combat, of course, and again this reflects the true experience of war – 99% boredom and 1% of sheer anarchic mayhem — but despite all the manifold failures of cinematic portrayals of war there are a few examples that, in my opinion, stand out. Here is a list, in no particular order of preference, of films – for cinema and TV – that in their various ways reflect the two crucial criteria that I set out at the beginning of this article: The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968 version), Full Metal Jacket, Musa the Warrior, Captain Conan, Downfall, Catch 22, Battle for Haditha, The Hurt Locker, Das Boot, Contact, Band of Brothers, Tumbledown, Platoon, The Bridge,A Very Long Engagement, The War Lover, The Battle of Britain, Black Hawk Down, Hell in the Pacific, The Battle of Algiers, Oh What a Lovely War!, The Duellists, Cross of Iron, Generation Kill,The Valley of Elah. I’m sure there are others that could be added to their number but what all these films have in common is a genuine artistic determination to make the experience of war seem real and true and in so doing underline its unsparing and essential awfulness.