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Despite the fact it’s an historical event from so long ago now, and has been portrayed on the screen countless times, World War I remains a difficult subject to cover. Originality and the delicate balance of emotions are two such challenges, but The War Below ticks both boxes and then some.
One thing all Great War adaptations have in common is that they tell a true story – partially at least – and this is about the little-known tale of a ragtag group of recruits whose mission was to tunnel under no-man’s land to gain an advantage on the Western Front.
They were in fact a group of miners hired for their specialist skills, a last roll of the dice to break the deadlock in the Battle of Messines. Led by William ‘Bill’ Hawkins (Sam Hazeldine, Peaky Blinders) they soon find life in the trenches is like nothing they could ever have imagined.
For much of the first quarter, the film doesn’t tell us a lot about the stark reality of the conflict that we haven’t seen many times before, but this is for the most part unavoidable. World War I was like no other, and to try and reinvent this somehow would be folly. For its part, The War Below takes us into the thick of the fighting and shrapnel in next to no time, quickly providing the stark contrast between the romanticism of enlisting and its grim reality. The pace and direction are superb throughout, and when coupled with cinematography of the highest order, provide action scenes you’ll rarely see better than.
Central to the piece is the relationship between Hawkins and Colonel ‘Hellfire’ Jack (Tom Goodman-Hill, The Imitation Game), the officer responsible for putting the band together, as it were. Whilst it’s certainly true that those of a certain rank were away from the thick of the action, it challenges the populist ‘them and us’ view of the war. There was undoubtedly a huge divide between top brass and Tommy, but the former were far from mindless in their tactics. They too had orders from King and country to follow, coupled with a set of firmly indoctrinated beliefs on how the war should be won.
Like Hawkins, many of the low-ranking soldiers weren’t just desperate to do their bit, but also to be someone in life, even if it meant making the ultimate sacrifice. Hawkins’ need for this reaches the point of obsession, and in that sense he’s no better than the suited-and-booted that put lives on the line daily with seemingly wanton abandon. It also makes the audience ponder constantly whether his actions are noble or selfish.
There’s no stone unturned when it comes to the other aspects either – there was, after all, more than just the physical battlefield. The miners faced hostilty from fellow British troops, as well as having to deal with the warring between themselves. That’s not forgetting their loved ones at home, an often overlooked aspect that’s of equal importance to this movie. Another job well done by director/co-writer JP Watts (The Lost Emperor).
This is everything a drama about this infamous passage of history should be, whilst carving out a niche for itself among its predecessors. The War Below goes on release in the UK on September 10.