Monday, 27 April 2015

Gallipoli: A Personal Story

My maternal Grandad, Lance corporal Wilfred Mack of the 5th Battalion, Norfolk Regiment, was badly wounded at Gallipoli in August 1915, shot several times in the leg (as kids we were always told seven bullets) during the futile attack on Suvla Cove. Gallipoli is rightly remembered for the terrible and heroic sacrifice of ANZAC troops — memorialised by Peter Weir's excellent film, Gallipoli — but I'm glad the centenary has given the Tommies their due, too. It is also a reminder that this was truly a World War, troops drawn from all over, with not all the action confined to the Western Front.

Stirred by the 1960s anti-war movement, the tendency has been to subscribe to the "Lions Led By Donkeys" version of hostilities, latterly known as the Blackadder school of thought. Undoubtedly there is truth in this, though for me it's too facile a judgement to lay upon all of the action — especially if you do your reading, and especially if you look at the ratio of officer casualties. That said, the Gallipoli campaign, of which Churchill was an architect, certainly fits the bill as a grossly ill-conceived Whitehall project. This was the D-Day landing of its time, yet was executed with what seems criminally scant attention paid to very deadly detail. Eight months of fighting, 250,000 Allied casualties. Enough said.

Some years later, a myth grew up about the 5th Battalion, Norfolks. In a sort of Levantine version of the Angle of Mons, extrapolated from some descriptive newspaper accounts, the men were supposed to have charged the Turkish positions, with 200-plus simply disappearing into a strange mist, never to be seen again (in some outlandish recent versions they were abducted by aliens). Yet another drama, a TV one this time, All The King's Men, promulgated the myth of the "Vanished", skewing the story with suggestion that the Battalion was drawn exclusively from the royal staff of the Sandringham Estate. (The pals' brigades were actually recruited from all over the county. My grandfather was a smallholder, born nr. Holt, lived the rest of his life in Sheringham.) For me the whole thing is rather disrespectful and ignores what seems almost certainly to have happened, especially when, after the war, they found many of the remains shovelled into a ditch.

From what I can remember him saying, and from what my mum tells me, they charged the Turks (records show they got 800yds behind the lines and regrouped, confused and lost, at a farmhouse) before machine guns took their toll. It would account for the number of bullets Grandad copped. These were raw, untried troops, remember. He was 19 at the time. From what can be gleaned from his recounting, in the chaos and carnage, people running all over the place, the survivors took cover in the shell holes of No Man's Land till darkness fell — though not without Grandad seeing his best mate's head being blown off right next to him and with a lifetime of nightmares to show for it. Eventually he crawled back.

Grandad died in 1981 when I was in my teens, before I really gained appreciation of what he'd been through (due to my dad's National Service stories and the paternal side's own multiple representation in WW2, it tended to get eclipsed). He was a man of few words, his accent so strong — back then broad Norfolk was a different language — it was difficult to make out a lot of what he said anyway. But I do remember him talking about docking at Marseilles and, later on, continuing the fight against the Ottomans in Palestine, which would have brought him under the supreme command of Lawrence of Arabia.

Grandparents Wilfred and Louisa went on to have eight children, all girls, one of which being my mum. With the maternal family name facing extinction, too, we thought it only fitting to name our own son Mack.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Roll Out The Big Guns

With Fury, David Ayer has made a Second World War film that rewrites the genre. Even though it stars Brad Pitt and a very big tank

Jeff Dawson, Sunday Times, October 12, 2014
Invading allies: the cast of Fury: from left, Shia LaBeouf, Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal

The original script of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds contained a line in which the renegade Nazi-scalper Lieutenant Aldo Raine — played by Brad Pitt — lambasts a comrade for eulogising a popular screen “war hero”. “John Wayne’s a pampered movie star,” Raine chides. “He bursts into tears if his cook busts his yolk at breakfast.”
Rest assured that on Fury, the hard-boiled story of a US tank crew slogging across Germany, the cast (featuring Pitt again) endured a gruelling pre-film boot camp, the better to pass muster as combat-hardened GIs. “They didn’t have cellphones,” a producer intones. “No coffee,” a military adviser adds. War, as they say, is hell.
To be fair, you won’t find a production oozing more authenticity. At Bovingdon airfield, in Hertfordshire, a former bomber base, the production designers have reconstructed an entire German Stadt across the tarmac. It has been lovingly rendered... then artfully ravaged. The shell holes, debris and bodies (rubber ones) do everything to convince you that you really are on the front line south of Hanover in April 1945. On a chilly morning, braziers burn, mud squelches and extras smoke. Through the fug of war, two Sherman tanks loom, rumbling into the square with visceral resonance. The lead one has “Fury” scrawled on its gun barrel; the head of its commander, Sergeant “Wardaddy” (Pitt), pokes out of the turret.
“The experience of the fighting man in Germany was crossing a river, hitting a village, crossing a river, hitting a village — and, at this stage of the war, it was a crapshoot,” says the writer/director, David Ayer, bundled up in a parka and US Navy baseball cap. “They’d hang out the white sheets and surrender, or they’d fight you and you’d burn it down.”
Unwisely, here, the Germans have laid an ambush. “There’s an antitank gun in the tailor’s shop.” He points to where curtains flap behind broken glass. “The tank’s going to fire white phosphorus into it, light it on fire, then machinegun the soldiers as they escape. It’s good, clean fun.”
Actually, there’s nothing clean about Fury, as grubby and squalid a war picture as you can get. “No one has ever done a movie about this stage of the war,” Ayer insists, his fictionalised story based on “vignettes and after-action reports” of the 2nd Armored Division’s odyssey. “It’s always been about the Bulge, Arnhem, D-Day, but at this point the US Army was exhausted, falling apart.” They had been on the road since North Africa, he says, travelling “like a band of gypsies”.
Fury movie featurette. Brad Pitt
As a former sonar operator on submarines, Ayer can empathise with the lot of the tank crew, “a metal machine full of smelly men”. And without a Nespresso. Less a Dirty Dozen, more a Filthy Five: Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal and the fresh-faced rookie Logan Lerman, popping his soldierly cherry as their trusty tin can mounts a stand against an overwhelming force of SS bitter-enders. To deafening decibels and raining ash, the scene proceeds, and it’s mighty impressive — until someone yells “Cut”, and a platoon of experts crunch across the rubble to ensure that men and machines remain true to their grimy grandeur.
Although there are any number of conflicts to choose from, the movies have an enduring love affair with the Second World War. With The Railway Man, The Monuments Men and Stalingrad out in recent months, and the freshly minted Mrs Pitt’s directorial take, Unbroken, opening soon, the bombardment continues. “It’s true good versus evil. That lack of ambiguity is a rare thing these days,” muses Ayer, mindful of the tortured introspection of all those war-on-terror films. It’s also war by proxy. The allies are “invaders”, rather than “liberators”, Ayer says, “which makes it a different dynamic. It’s a bit of an allegory to some of the wars we’re involved in today. And there’s the fanaticism — a child could be the enemy, a woman could be the enemy.”
The body of a youth, lynched by the SS, dangles from an upstairs window, the slogan “Ich bin ein Feigling” (“I am a coward”) slung round its neck, there to coerce every able-bodied citizen into staging a rearguard action. “That’s the other bit of this. Everybody knows the war’s over. They’re fighting to the last, and it’s pointless. People have to continue dying to service this evil, totalitarian regime. I’m trying to capture that sense of tragedy.”
Any Second World War movie of recent times, of course, owes a huge debt to Saving Private Ryan, which rebooted the genre in 1998. There’s a direct line from that film to Fury, not least because Spielberg’s opus was shot up the road in Hatfield (on another old aerodrome), and its vast set was recycled into the television series Band of Brothers. And among Fury’s 4,000 pairs of hand-stitched boots, miles of uniform racks and hangars full of hardware, there’s no shortage of kit that did a tour of duty for Spielberg. The M1 rifles and German MG 34s, genuine antiques, have earned the John Wayne-ish distinction of having fired more rounds in movies than they ever did in combat.
Just as Spielberg had his shark, his T. rex, in the form of a Tiger tank, a destructive behemoth that could make mincemeat of a Sherman, Ayer has deployed the samebête noire, a real live monster shipped up from the Tank Museum in Bovington. He grumbles, though, that Spielberg inadvertently “institutionalised” a new method of execution of the war film — the shaky handheld camera and other cinematic tropes, things he’s trying to avoid. “I’m going back to the actual history itself, to the original photographs, the original Signal Corps footage, and building the world up from there,” he says. “I’m trying to reinvent the genre a bit and breathe new life into it.”
Where Spielberg maintained the nobility of his Greatest Generation, Ayer stabs the Geneva Conventions in the eyeball. (“Ideals are peaceful, history is violent,” Wardaddy broods in one of his Duke-meets-Colonel Kilgore moments.) The sum of Ayer’s research, based on interviews with old soldiers, is that the combat, by this point, was barbaric. “Either they’re party-line about it, the clean history, or there’s the guys who tell you, ‘Yeah, we shot prisoners, we did this, we did that.’ This idea of delivering Europe from evil has been projected into the fighting. It’s not clean. It’s not black-and-white, and that’s what I want to show — it’s not easy to be a soldier. It’s not easy to know when to pull the trigger and when not to pull the trigger.”
Despite his military pedigree (both his grandfathers served in the war), Ayer made his career in cop films, depicting the mean streets of South Central LA and scoring plaudits for his Training Day screenplay and his directorial efforts: Harsh Times, Street Kings and End of Watch. “Uniforms, guns, a very A-personality masculine world — there’s a lot of parallels.” His more recent outing, Sabotage, starring an embalmed Arnold Schwarzenegger, fared less well critically.
Back in the habit: Eli Roth and Brad Pitt, right, kill Nazis in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds
Ayer, who looks like a cage fighter but is perfectly affable, has been down the Second World War road before — and not without controversy. His breakthrough script, drawing on his submarine experience, was the infamous U-571 (2000), derided in Britain for its scurrilous portrayal of the US Navy, rather than the Royal, as the captors of the German Enigma machine (an episode, one hopes, that will be readdressed in the Benedict Cumberbatch-as-Alan Turing film, The Imitation Game).
Ayer issues a sheepish grin and slides into dog-ate-my-homework mode. “It’s horrible that I got the slings and arrows on U-571. It wasn’t my idea, wasn’t my script, wasn’t my story. I was a hired gun. I was 27 years old. It was my first studio job. I was happy to get paid. In hindsight, should I have turned the job down? No, because I was broke. So I apologise.” He explains how he had dinner with Sub-Lieutenant David Balme, the officer who led the mission. “And he was fine with the whole thing, so I thought we’d be in the clear. Apparently not.”
Back to the action: Ayer strolls over to figure out further ways of demonstrating that for Fritz, the war is over. Following to observe on the monitor, I sidestep a civilian body — a pretend one that has had its head blown off.
There’s one detail they’ve got wrong. In the Second World War, the average age of a combat soldier was 26. The jowly Pitt, at 50, is battling the Boche 12 years past the cutoff age for the American draft. Wargrandaddy. Was it his sterling work in Inglourious Basterds that swung it? He did, after all, end up killing Hitler. No such stuff for the Führer in Fury, Ayer laughs. “He takes care of himself a few weeks later.”

Fury opens on Oct 22