Film: Oh what a lonely war!

The Big Picture
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The Independent Culture
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.