Film: Oh what a lonely war!

The Big Picture

On the morning of 1 July 1916, a continuous line of British soldiers climbed out of their trenches along the Somme and began to walk slowly towards the German lines. There was a general belief that the furious bombardment of the enemy during the previous week had destroyed their positions. That belief proved unfounded, and by the end of the day the British Army had suffered the bloodiest slaughter in its history, with 60,000 casualties, killed or wounded.

The novelist William Boyd has taken on this momentous subject for his directorial debut - momentous in that it marks the point when the 20th century really began - yet The Trench is no more a "war movie" than was Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line earlier this year. While both films concentrate on the psychological torment of men preparing to face their death, Malick treated this in a dreamy, expansive, near-philosophical way. Boyd, in contrast, pulls the focus tight into a tense, airless space.

Set over the 48 hours leading up to the Battle of the Somme, The Trench acquaints us with a squad of young soldiers, the volunteers of Kitchener's Army who joined up in the first flush of patriotic ardour, little suspecting what was awaiting them at the front.

As in RC Sherriff's play Journey's End, the intention is to undermine the romantic conception of the Great War. But where Sherriff's men were of the educated, well-spoken officer class, The Trench mostly explores the earthier comradeship of soldiers such as 17-year-old Billy Macfarlane (Paul Nicholls), the platoon's tough-nut Sergeant Winter (Daniel Craig) and the nerve-jangled Second Lieutenant Hart (Julian Rhind-Tutt), who keeps himself going on crafty nips of scotch. Navigating the claustrophobic spaces, the camera absorbs not just the dread but the boredom, discomfort, squalor, sleeplessness and dislocation of trench life, these miseries counterpointed by the mirth and energetic profanity of what were essentially young lads together. When a toe-rag corporal named Dell (Danny Dyer) charges his fellows a penny each for a look at his porn photos, you're tempted to snort at such juvenile behaviour - until you remember that most of these soldiers are juveniles.

Boyd has previously covered the horrors of the Western Front in his capacious and brilliant novel The New Confessions (1987), from which he occasionally borrows details. When Billy's brother Eddie is shot in the mouth by a sniper, a soldier standing nearby catches one of his teeth in the face, a direct quotation from the moment in the novel when Todd, on his first unprotected view of no-man's-land, is hit just above the eye from a flying tooth fragment.

Later on, Billy comes across a ration party that has been blasted by a direct hit, all that remains of them a hideous confusion of flesh and bone. The camera glimpses this briefly before turning back to Billy, yet its impact cannot match Todd's description of a similarly unspeakable sight: "I saw what looked like a horrifically mangled side of beef, flayed by a maniac butcher with an axe. At the top there was an ear, some hair and part of a cheek". It seems to me that the novel's description is more unsettling than what we witness in the film, because the suggestiveness of the words "flayed" and "maniac butcher" force us towards the perilous uncertainties of our own imagination - far scarier than what we see in plain view.

This is not the place to discuss the superiority of the novel over film, though it must be said that in terms of richness of characterisation, Boyd's soldiers on film pale beside Todd's platoon in the book, whose names I can still recall from the last time I read it.

The young cast of The Trench certainly look the part, from their close- cropped heads to their eager, open faces, yet in general we accumulate little sense of them as individuals. A notable exception is the uneasy relationship between the hard-bitten Sergeant Winter played by Daniel Craig and Julian Rhind-Tutt's ineffectual junior officer; both actors have a presence which they use to tremendous effect in a sequence near the end of the film. The platoon's rum ration - vital Dutch courage for those about to go over the top - has been stolen, and in desperation Winter asks the Second Lieutenant to donate his personal supply of whisky for the sake of his men. The latter refuses, and for the first and last time we feel the repressed hostility crackle between the two; only afterwards did I remember that Winter himself was teetotal, his persistence an act of true selflessness. It's one of the film's great moments.

The film's other problems are mainly to do with budget. The interior recreation of the trench never quite allows you to ignore the studio lighting or the slightly artificial atmosphere: there seems a peculiar absence of flies and mosquitoes for a reeking, mud-bound trench in high summer. I also didn't much care for the cymbal crashes on the score whenever a dramatic title - "The Trench, 1st July 1916" - flashed up on screen. These are minor shortcomings. What Boyd and his team have done, given their means, is remarkable. One emerges from it with a sense of tragic limitation, of young men who barely accustomed themselves to life before they were suddenly forced to confront death. It addresses with profound seriousness and humanity an experience of war that still holds and horrifies, even as it fades from the edges of living memory.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015