The war film genre is a strange beast. Many of the films are entirely propaganda, pontificating on the successes of the old made by the sacrifices of young, celebrating the loss of life by infusing it with self-aggrandizing nationalism. Weird how war films are almost always presented from the winning side, eh? Then there is another type, one which eschews the typical rah-rah approach for something more intimate, where the conflict is a backdrop to the proceedings, allowing for opportunities to focus on character and individuality amid the mass loss and violence. The latter more accurately describes director/co-writer J.P. Watts’s The War Below, a based-on-a-true-story film set during World War I which narrows the focus of the conflict to a group of miners brought in to dig under No Man’s Land in order to create opportunities to change the course of the fight against the Triple Alliance German soldiers holding the line. Though The War Below moves along at a quick pace, never enabling the audience to really catch their breath, the film itself lacks a certain energy to generate tension — an odd result of moving so fast that the audience isn’t given time to care.
No Man’s Land became the name for a stretch of space on the front lines of World War I in which no member of either the Triple Entente (France, Russia, and Britain) or the Triple Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungry, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire) could pass in safety as they’d be very likely to be shot down by a guard at the opposing post. Frequently, soldiers would be wounded as bait for their comrades, creating an opportunity to kill those who would dare rescue them. With no ground being made by either side, Lieutenant-Colonel John Norton-Griffiths (Tom Goodman-Hill) came up with the idea to conscript a team to dig underneath No Man’s Land and detonate bombs underneath the enemy. To do so would require enormous skill and the average soldier lacked the training necessary, so Norton-Griffiths went to a mining company and found himself five men to do the job: William Hawkin (Sam Hazeldine), Harold Stockford (Kris Hitchen), Shorty (Joseph Steyne), George MacDonald (Elliot James Langridge), and Charlie MacDonald (Sam Clemmett). The actions of these five men would change the modern battlefield forever.
The War Below is a conundrum of a film. It accurately presents the marketing approach that Britain took to sell the draft, calling upon “heroes” to fight for the King and marking those who did not for the public to identify. It sold an image of glory and honor while the front line was filled with everything but. Thanks to Peter Jackson’s documentary They Shall Not Grow Old (2019), the true face of battle can be understood past the glamour of war. The War Below doesn’t shy away from some aspects of life on the front – a public and shared shitter that’s often getting bombarded, feces on the ground, the psychological pressure of realizing that your superiors will sacrifice you without hesitation if the brass deems it so – offering a historical authenticity that increases engagement with the story. However, there’s rarely a sense of danger because The War Below is so focused on the primary narrative that it’s pretty easy to get lost in trials of the team and forget what’s going on around them. As such, there’s a strange inverse effect where there’s little sense of danger beyond those which miners are used to navigating: gas pockets, fall-ins, and the like. It’s not until the Powers start digging as well that there’s any real sense of danger to the mining team. At that point, it really becomes a race and one begins to feel for the team and whether they’ll be able to achieve a goal that could turn the tide of the war.
Another good idea with a strange side effect is that the audience spends time with the five man team, but really only journeys with one: Hazeldine’s Hawkin. The narrowing smartly keeps the focus on the task at hand, but it does so to the point that we care less about what happenings to them as individuals and more as to how it impacts Hawkin. This is strange given that the events of the film include some moments of real tension that break the mold of the average expected narrative, cinematic or inspired by real events, yet there’s little fallout for the audience. The script is so focused on the mission, almost as much as Norton-Griffiths, that all the rest fades to the background. Outside of some conversation and natural exposition, the audience isn’t given anything beyond a desire to do the right thing even if it costs them their lives. Don’t mistake the script for being cold, it’s not at all; it offers moments that enable to the audience to recognize these actors as avatars of real people. It’s just that we’re not given more than an outline of each, outside of Hawkins, so their survival or lack thereof doesn’t have the impact intended.
There’s an odd comparison to be made about The War Below and it’s not meant as a jab in the slightest. Watching the film reminded me of Michael Bay’s Armageddon (1998). It bears similarity in that the military goes to a group of specialists to dig in hopes of saving lives and, when told that soldiers will do the job, the leader scoffs at the idea as there’s no way for the soldiers to have the necessary knowledge that the diggers and their team do. Now, I haven’t looked into whether screenwriters J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Jonathan Hensleigh (The Saint) took inspiration from what these miners did in WWI, but it was never far from my mind while watching it. Strangely, there’s more drama, more intensity, and more depth of character in the ’98 popcorn flick than there is in The War Below despite the pieces being there. It’s not that the story itself isn’t a riveting one, it is. To see how it all goes down in this cinematic recreation is moving, but, by rushing to get to the end, this 96-minute historical drama fails to take the time to make us care about it happening. And you’ll want to care about the sacrifices of life and mental health that this endeavor took. You should care. None should be apathetic to those who fought in any war for rarely is there an individual who took up arms for a reason beyond someone higher up above them decided to get into a pissing contest.
In virtual theaters October 1st, 2021.
Available on VOD November 11th, 2021.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.