New film pays tribute to forgotten heroes of Monte Cassino

Key Second World War battle left 200,000 dead or injured – but was overshadowed by D-Day

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The Independent Culture

Monte Cassino was one of the most bitter and bloody battles of the Second World War, causing tens of thousands of casualties over five months in 1943-44. Now, almost 70 years later, the bravery and sacrifice of soldiers who fought in it is to be told for the first time in an English film, The Independent can reveal. 

It will be an overdue tribute to the “D-Day Dodgers” – so-called by the troops who during the Italian campaign endured the worst close-quarter fighting since the First World War.  They felt their extreme sacrifice was eclipsed by the D-Day landings at Normandy, about which many feature films have been made.

The wartime epic will be shot by one of Britain’s foremost film-makers, John Irvin, who made his name over 30 years ago with John le Carre’s classic espionage story, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Alec Guinness. He also directed the critically-acclaimed war films The Dogs of War and Hamburger Hill, applauded for its rare authenticity.

Irvin has long been fascinated by Monte Cassino and plans to release the film in 2014, to mark the battle’s 70th anniversary. He told The Independent: “I think there is… a sense of shame of the sheer cost and horror which was inflicted by questionable decisions leading to colossal casualties… I believe it [a film] hasn't been done before because the times simply haven’t been right for this type of Second World War reflection before now.”

Kit Harington, the aristocratic heartthrob who starred as Albert in the hit stage original of War Horse, is tipped to play the heroic lead in the film.

Based on a true story, it will focus on an American soldier involved in the assaults, who is wounded and cared for by an Italian nurse whom he eventually married. She died recently.

Monte Cassino was a mountain redoubt in the German defensive line, stretching across Italy and blocking the Allied advance to Rome. During the harshest Italian winter on record, and difficult terrain, the battle centred on the world-famous vast sixth-century abbey, an ideal defence for the Germans.

The Allied victory came at a high price. The Allies made repeated attacks on the abbey and some 200,000 soldiers on both sides – including British and Commonwealth - were killed or wounded. Many of those who survived were scarred mentally, like the comedian Spike Milligan.

The Germans, however, rescued the abbey’s treasures, and at first the Allies refrained from bombing the building, though they eventually were forced to destroy it. The redoubt was finally captured by Polish troops. 

With a screenplay by Collin Scott, the film’s historical consultant is the military historian Peter Caddick-Adams, who worked closely with the late TV historian Richard Holmes. Now his new book, Monte Cassino, has inspired Irvin.

Dr Caddick-Adams told The Independent that the veterans of Monte Cassino are like the “forgotten army of Burma”: “All the attention [of filmmakers] is on Normandy… [Monte Cassino] is perceived as a backwater in some ways. Had D-Day not been happening, this would have been the major Allied effort and therefore would have got its fair share of attention.”

His book reflects the horrors of the battle. The troops lacked proper equipment to dig in in the mountainous terrain and the rocks shattered like glass when hit by any projectile, which “sent splinters of rock in all directions, and causing a horrifically high number of head, face and eye injuries”. Men also died from heat and cold exposure.

There will be an opportunity to hear Irvin and Caddick-Adams discuss the forthcoming film and Monte Cassino at the National Army Museum on 8 September.