J.P. Watt’s debut feature The War Below is a creative and unique addition to the genre, depicting the ugliness of World War I trench warfare with emotion and visual grit. Working with a micro-budget of 600,000 British Pounds, using a true story based in World War I proves to be a smart choice as we follow a group of British miners who, despite no formal training, are recruited to the front line in a final desperate effort to break the current stalemate. A solid story is waiting to be told, and given it took place during a war filled with stalemates, the close to complete lack of action doesn’t feel misplaced, though it does put a hefty weight on the story’s shoulders.
Watts” debut feature follows the characters that make up the group of miners rather than the soldiers and the action, principally focusing on Bill (Sam Hazeldine), the de-facto leader of the team. The stalemate at the front lines has prompted a sudden and, to many, insane idea: digging a tunnel thirty feet underground through No Man’s Land. An officer of influence, Captain ‘Hellfire’ Jack (Tom Goodman-Hill), is willing to put his entire military career in the hands of the miners he hires for the daunting task, one he is convinced can be done.
The fact that we are on the front-lines as seen by men untrained for combat immediately sets this apart from most war films. They are soon yelled at for a lack of training and told to sleep away from the ‘real soldiers’. This consistent mistreatment of blue collar hard workers who want to help in the only way they know makes them incredibly easy to relate to. This is especially true for Bill, who we see in the first scene turned away when trying to apply for army.
After having proved themselves able by tearing apart a building that was home to a machine-gun nest, despite heavy doubts, lack of sleep and absurd and dangerous deadlines, the miners refuse to let a company of soldiers finish their operation. They know that their expertise isn’t something a solider can learn in a few months, and subsequently force themselves into the situation.
The bleak look of the film is appropriate for the suicide mission the miners embark on, using a limited colour palette dominated by army uniforms, rats, and mud. The claustrophobic nature of the tunnels force the men to reflect on their situation, the film exploring the existential ache inherently connected to war: a toxic, dark side to the the chain of command mindset, comrades who don’t consider them real soldiers. This is where it is at its best, and the film intelligently focuses largely on it. It isn’t a brilliant award winner, but considering the budget, this is quite an impressive debut film.
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