27 Aug 2021
Director J. P. Watts leans heavily on the working class hero in this WW1 tale of mining heroes at the Battle of Messines. With a crew of lovable rogues as his emotional fodder, he makes sure his audience also feels the reverberations of classism and social plight in The War Below.
Tom Goodman-Hill (best-known for playing Joe in the TV series Humans) plays a Commanding Officer with arguably the greatest name ever produced - Hellfire Jack. He is charged with finding a solution to the stalemate currently unfolding in Messines, Belgium, whereby the Allies and the Germans are haemorrhaging troops and bullets. He quickly acquires the expertise of a group of skilled miners from home in order to successfully burrow their way across No Man’s Land and blow the enemy to smithereens.
This plucky rag-tag group, headed by Peaky Blinders’ Sam Hazeldine, were deemed unfit to serve as soldiers - due to an array of health reasons - but now find themselves on the frontlines, and playing a vital role in the outcome of The Great War. They experience a plethora of abuse from the higher-ups, not to mention the soldiers who were deemed fit to fight, and must endure the horrid conditions of life in the trenches (steer clear of the crapper, there’s a Gerry taking potshots at anyone trying to evacuate their bowels).
The War Below successfully and efficiently explores the disconnect between soldiers and officers, and makes it clear that this broken relationship has instant modern parallels. Whereas officers in WW1 were decorated for heroic bravery without ever firing a gun (they left that to the expendable soldiers) our battles today see economic titans winning a capitalist war won off the backs of the same underclass workforce. The difference now being there is very little mention of doing it for “King and Country” these days.
But let’s stay with the real strengths of Watts’ film (co-written with Thomas Woods) which are the notions of noble sacrifice and brotherhood. Our heroes are underground, out of sight, unrecognised and yet they boldly march into the face of almost certain death with each other out of loyalty and honour. Their commitment to “do their bit” whilst being spat on from every which direction make them enduringly endearing, and when personal tragedies start to occur it makes the film ultimately more heartbreaking. It’s a poignant and remarkable story of bravery told with class acting all round. Goodman-Hill delivers a powerful performance as the only officer with a heart, with plenty of stiff-upper-lip stuff for fans of the era.
It’s not in the same league as 1917 or Saving Private Ryan but is most definitely a worthy entry into the War genre, if only for the self-contained narrative which is bolstered by great performances and a strong emotional connection to their social and physical plight.