Movies The TrenchThe Trench, a 1991 British film by William Boyd, almost accomplishes what a serious anti-war film should do — make a case against war without showing thrilling battle scenes. All but the last minutes of the 98 minute movie take place in one of the hundreds of British trenches dug along the River Somme in the spring and early summer of 1916.  In fact, it at times feels like a transplanted stage play with actors coming on stage, engaging, then one exiting up trench, or down, to be replaced by another, including stage-like blocking and gestures to highlight, or underline a line or two.

One gruesome shot of a dismembered body, from a random shell, is all we see of the fighting-war until the final, tension filled, ‘over the top’ beginning the bloodiest day in British military history, the Battle of the Somme.  [From July 1 to November 18, 1916; the first day alone some 58,000 British troops were killed or wounded. Though French troops were involved, the enormous majority were involved in the fighting at Verdun beginning prior to, and ending after the fighting at the Somme .] What does happen is between the men, their sergeant and the lieutenant.  One visit from a general for a photo-op briefly lightens the growing tension of the scheduled H-Hour, until he admits, in answer to a question, that he, himself, will not be going with them.

The bickering, the joking, the fear and the courage are shown well.  In fact, the tension as the hour approaches — with at least one man vomiting in fear– is made tauter in contrast to the boredom portrayed in the early minutes. The conversations of the men about women, both dear and paid, compared to what we are used to post WW II films, is so innocent and even sweet we wonder if the young men then — one admits to not being 18– were in fact like this, or if the film makers simply chose the road of innocence.

A significant problem for American audiences are the various regional British accents.  Even with a good headset I missed many of the exchanges between the men.  I know the Brits don’t want to admit it, but subtitles for cousins are sometimes necessary.  Partly because of the language problem, partly because of a set design that did not include the wet and mud and filth we have come to associate  (and fairly so) with WW I trenches, and partly I suspect because of a young crew of actors we have a hard time fully engaging until well into the movie. The Lt [Julian Rhind-Tutt] is so effete it is hard to connect with him at all. Daniel Craig, recently of Bond fame, is here in one of his early roles, and the only fully believable character.    Without spoiling the ending, Boyd does stay away from the cliched depiction such a sergeant, tough and kind, so typical of men-at-war movies.

One of the additional materials included with the Netflix DVD offering are almost worth getting the film by itself.  It’s an old CBS (NBC?) documentary about the French at Verdun in the spring of 1916 as the Germans try to draw them into a trap and crush them, and the overlapping Battle of the Somme, almost all taken on by the Brits as the French were stretched thin to their south.  The documentary footage, of heavy weaponry, muddy tranches, frantic scrambles over trench walls packs a punch the movie itself lacks until the last twenty minutes or so.

This August, 2014, is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of WW I.  I don’t know if new films are in the works, though dozens of histories are hitting the shelvesPaths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 offering, and Wooden Crosses, a 1932 French movie stand up well as does Lewis Milestone’s 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front. More recent movies are A Very Long Engagement (2004) with a major role for a woman, searching for her missing fiancee, and Beneath Hill 60  from Australia for a truely claustrophobic look at sappers, deep underground.  What I keep looking for is not more adrenaline but honest looks at the costs of war and how the characters come to terms with what they are doing, and what is being done to them — and eventually, to their families, communities and countries.  Are second thoughts ever uttered?

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