War movies cost money, but the team behind The War Below have somehow managed to produce one on the sort of budget that Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk or Peter Jackson’s 1917 probably spent on catering. And they’ve made a decent fist of it.
The fascinating and true story it tells is of the British miners recruited during the First World War to break the stalemate at the battle of Messines. Their task was to burrowing out through no-man’s-land and under German lines, lay explosives and blow the enemy position to pieces. Up against the obvious challenges such as unknown terrain and impossible deadlines, the five recruits, all mates of long-standing, are also battling the class attitudes of the army’s top brass, which range from indifference to outright hostility.
The five men are William Hawkin (the imdb is currently calling him Hawkins, which is wrong, but either way “Bill”, as he’s known, is played by Sam Hazeldine), Harold Stockford (Kris Hitchen), Shorty (Joseph Steyne), Charlie MacDonald (Sam Clemmett) and his brother George (Elliott James Langridge), though to all intents and purposes you can forget the other four – this is about Hawkin, a bluff, decent man denied a chance to fight (a “crackle” in his miner’s lung had said no) and now relieved that this opportunity will release him from the shame he felt at not doing his bit.
Representing the officer class there’s Tom Goodman-Hill as Hellfire Jack, brains behind this stout band of “claykickers” (modelled on the actual Hellfire Jack, aka John Norton-Griffith, who did indeed come up with such a plan) and Colonel Fielding (Andrew Scarborough), whose only real function is to drip condescension whenever these “sewer rats” are in earshot.
This is not the standard 20th-century view of the First World War of Oh! What a Lovely War – lions led by donkeys in an orgy of pointless killing – but the now standard 21st-century revisionist line of brave men fighting a dirty and necessary war in the defence of certain values (a reading that’s gained ground since 9/11 and the War on Terror).
You might be familiar with the story if you’ve seen the Australian film Beneath Hill 60, which approaches the same material from an antipodean angle, emphasising the involvement of Aussie miners. If not, it’s worth checking out and is also a case of a fascinating story being told on a budgetary tight leash.
Like the five men it follows, The War Below moves at speed and it lacks air. Most films could do with a 20-30 minute trim, but this one needs more space and time. Some characters barely get a look-in, and the technical detail of what these men are accomplishing and the challenges they’re overcoming would probably take on more dramatic weight if explained a bit more.
Money is clearly an issue, and experience. The DP, Nick Cooke, has a few notches on his bedpost but as for the rest of them, director JP Watts, co-writer Thomas Woods and soundtrack composer Anné Kulonen are all on their first film (first feature-length film in Kulonen’s case). The ingenuity and attack is palpable. Quite how few extras there are I’m not sure, but there aren’t many people in this film, not much in the way of sets, but careful camera angles make the most of what there is. Even so, there is the odd moment when it shows.
The result is a movie that’s busting a gut to be a movie, if you know what I mean. It’s not setting out to rework the genre, or be experimental, it just wants to get its material in the can (to use analogue terms) convincingly. The demands of the production itself sometimes get in the way of its storytelling aspect but it’s generally a case of “job done”.
The two leads really help make it gel. Sam Hazeldine’s comforting voice a representation of his character – dependable, honest and true – while the excellent Tom Goodman-Hill has the harder role, as the initially ambivalent officer who finds he’s developing a growing respect for these horny handed sons of toil planning to blow the Germans to bits.
There’s still a 70 metre hole in the ground there, apparently, out in Belgium where the real miners and tunnellers dug. The explosion was the loudest ever of the pre-nuclear era and could be heard in London, so they say. Whether it made any difference to the war effort is entirely debatable. But that’s another story.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021