Fake blood, real mud as film relives the Somme

Liz Hunt meets the screenwriter who brought the Great War to Glasgow

Armistice Day 1996 - Monday 11 November - was the day the Somme came to Glasgow. Shooting of the First World War epic Regeneration was at its peak on battlefields reclaimed from scrubland just outside the city.

In driving sleet and sub-zero temperatures, actors and scores of extras negotiated ground that was knee-deep in mud, criss-crossed with barbed- wire-trimmed trenches, and hazy with smoke from guns and explosives. Artificial bodies and limbs lay partly buried in the mire, and the pace was frenetic, says director Gillies MacKinnon.

A scene in which 80 men were cut down by machine-gun fire in a matter of seconds had not long been completed when, at 11am sharp, everything and everyone stopped. The two-minute silence that followed was "the most moving, the most eerie experience I've ever known," recalls one crew member.

It had been scriptwriter Allan Scott's idea to mark the day thus. For one of the UK's most successful and prolific film writers and producers, a Hollywood player of the first order and a man dubbed the "Richelieu of Wardour Street" by observers of his high-level machinations on behalf of the film industry, the scenes being recreated in Glasgow were too powerful to ignore.

"There we were, surrounded by all the iconography of the First World War," Mr Scott, 54, said last week. "It had rained for weeks, and the mud was like nothing you have ever seen. I thought there was no way we could not mark it." The cast and crew agreed. "We caught a glimpse of the reality of that war in a way that few people have ever had," Gillies MacKinnon said.

Regeneration, adapted from the first of the Pat Barker trilogy which culminated in the Booker Prize for The Ghost Road, is the latest venture in the celluloid rediscovery of the events of 1914-1918. Lord Attenborough's In Love and War - for which Scott wrote the script - opened last week, a film of Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong is also proposed, and Scott is working with Sir David Puttnam on a A Very Long Engagement, another Great War project.

Scott believes the current interest in the First World War is because "we're the last generation able to touch it through our grandparents". Regeneration was a book he believed in from the moment he read it, shortly after it was published in 1991. He immediately acquired the rights and wrote a screenplay "on spec" - an unusual act for a writer who has been in constant demand since his script for Nicolas Roeg's classic Don't Look Now. He took it to the BBC, and he knew who he wanted to direct it; the young Scottish director MacKinnon, who has since won critical acclaim and numerous awards for his film Small Faces.

But time passed and the rights went to MGM who were keen to develop a film about Siegfried Sassoon, the aristocratic poet, war hero, and anti- war protester. It is the intriguing cerebral relationship between Sassoon, played by James Wilby, and the army psychologist, Dr W H Rivers, at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh in 1917, which provides the fact blended seamlessly with the fiction in the book.

But Regeneration is about more than Sassoon. It is, according to Scott, about how Rivers, "managed to make sane men mad enough to go back to war and how he lives with that. Or rather he doesn't. He becomes shell-shocked through treating their shell-shock".

And it is also about Billy Prior, the clever, working-class soldier promoted to officer class and rendered mute by his experiences, who is Rivers' most hostile patient. In him, Pat Barker has created one of the most complex and chilling characters in modern fiction. Jonny Lee Miller, "Sick Boy" in last year's mega-hit, Trainspotting, brings him to life in the film.

Scott, 54, a charming and occasionally indiscreet interviewee, feared the loss of all this potential to Hollywood. "Occasionally Gillies and I would meet up and cry into our beer but he was always optimistic that we'd do it," he said. "About 18 months ago I heard the rights were available again, I had the script and so I said to Gillies 'I'm ready if you are.'"

The film, now in post-production and due to premier at Cannes in May, stars Jonathan Pryce as Rivers, famous as a neurologist and social anthropologist in academic circles before the War. He is the pivotal figure around whom Sassoon and Prior move. Robert Graves, Sassoon's great friend and the man who persuades him to seek help for his pacifist leanings, makes a fleeting appearance along with Wilfred Owen. Owen was at Craiglockhart in late 1917 being treated for neurasthenia or "shell-shock" but was not a Rivers patient.

It was Owen's encounters with Sassoon - he hero-worships and is secretly in love with him according to the book - which resulted in the body of work which marks out Owen as the war poet for most people.

"What is fascinating," says Scott, "is that Owen hadn't written a war poem until he met Sassoon. He tells him that he thinks that poetry is 'something to take refuge in' from all the ugliness. Sassoon tells him to face facts. It was from October 1917 until he died [in November1918] that he wrote the war poems."

The film will introduce a new generation to the poetry of the Great War. But its inclusion presented Scott with problems. He had wanted to use "Dulce et decorum est" at the end but it was pointed out that most of his audience would not know what it meant. (In Owen's words, "The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori" - It is sweet and honourable to die for your country). Since Regeneration is intended as big box-office rather than art house, it must appeal to Mr and Mrs Iowa et al, so Scott had to find a way of explaining Dulce et... early in the film so that the audience would not realise it had been "set up". How was it done? "Wait and see."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor