Sam Hazeldine headlines The War Below, and it’s a war movie very much worth seeking out – here’s our review.
Britain is a nation fascinated by the World Wars, and by making movies about them. It’s no coincidence that two of the UK’s biggest Oscar contenders in recent years have been Sam Mendes’s gripping single-take trench warfare thriller 1917 and Christopher Nolan’s evacuation actioner Dunkirk. Operating at a quieter register and with a considerably smaller bank balance, but boasting no less drama, is J P Watts’ debut feature The War Below.
Sam Hazeldine plays the steadfast Yorkshireman William – based on real-life miner William Hackett – who’s determined to join his fellow Brits in the trenches of Nothern Europe, but is knocked back by the army due to coal dust on his lungs accumulated over a lengthy career down the mines. He eventually gets his chance to play a part in the war when soldier Hellfire Jack (Tom Goodman-Hill) pitches an ambitious plan to tunnel under the German lines and deploy explosives to create openings for infantry attack above ground.
For William, this is a dream opportunity and one which he grasps with both arms, despite the way he and his civilian colleagues are treated as second class citizens by the weary soldiers in the trenches. “Praise goes up, shit comes down,” says one of the miners in summation.
Hazeldine excels as a husband and father who hides inner turmoil and fear behind the front he presents as an ordinary man simply doing his duty. Even when he directly disobeys an order to rescue a soldier stranded in No Man’s Land, he frames his actions as those of any reasonable man, rather than someone willing to take excessive risks and potentially put others in danger in order to assuage his own guilt.
The movie handles its quieter, more emotional scenes very well, emphasising the sacrifice of these men and the acute danger for these miners, who haven’t been trained to fight and kill. When German forces later begin digging their own trenches and the tunnel network becomes a battleground, the risk of close combat skirmishes rises. Suddenly, there’s as much of a risk of a knife in the gut as there is of a deadly cave-in.
Watts draws heavily on the inherent claustrophobia of the setting, providing a different and terrifying perspective on the trenches. There’s a simplicity to the storytelling – although it does occasionally wander into on-the-nose clichés – that feels refreshing and allows the undeniable horror of the environment to speak more loudly than any wider point of view about the war and those who fought in it. Even the culture clash between the working class miners and the posh generals who command them is ultimately secondary, with Goodman-Hill’s performance cutting through the pomposity with a palpable sense of admiration and respect.
Despite the wider significance of the story to the conflict as a whole, and the impressive spectacle of the finale given the meagre budget, it’s the characters who shine through most clearly. Many of the best war movies – including the stunning and sadly underseen 2017 remake of Journey’s End – focus on the people behind the conflict, and that’s certainly true here. Sam Clemmett is particularly impressive as young miner Charlie, who talks poignantly about the importance of receiving a letter, and how he will never take the arrival of the postman for granted if and when he makes it home.
The War Below doesn’t break the mould in its depiction of war. But Watts understands how to stretch his budget to the max and deliver something that is as visually compelling as it is impressive in its character work. Hazeldine’s stoic performance is the highlight, but this is a very strong piece across the board which does not deserve to fly under the radar.