The Trench

UK/France 1999

Reviewed by Tom Tunney


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

On the Western Front, just before the build-up to the Somme offensive of 1 July 1916, a platoon of British troops hold a section of the front line. As the deadline for the dawn attack approaches, one man, Macfarlane, is wounded by an enemy sniper and evacuated. The troops' banter turns unpleasant when Dell accuses the others of stealing one of his pornographic postcards. A senior officer arrives and tells the troops the advance will be easy because the artillery will destroy the enemy's defences. The men cheer, but Daventry dissents and is later reprimanded by Sergeant Winter.

Several of the group are killed in an adjacent trench while carrying rations. Winter and Beckwith undertake a night patrol and bring back a German prisoner whom Dell insults and attacks. The German is sent back to the rear and safety. Dell is ordered to fetch the rum ration for the men, drinks much of it himself and is caught in an explosion. He comes back drunk without the rum. Winter persuades the platoon officer Harte to share his whisky with the men. As they prepare to go over the top at dawn, one man shoots himself in the leg. Macfarlane looks at the photograph in his locket: it's a face cut from Dell's missing postcard. Winter forces the drunken Dell into the attack. Winter is hit just after leaving the trench. The others advance and are cut down by enemy fire within yards of their own front line.


Author and screenwriter William Boyd's directing debut plays more like a schools-education programme than a theatrical film. The movie's low budget is particularly glaring in the final sequence where a mere handful of men (representing an army of tens of thousands) step out into an unspoilt meadow and are cut down in slow motion one by one. Compared to the manic, visceral horrors of Saving Private Ryan or the sweeping battlefield tracking shots of Paths of Glory (1957), this austere stylisation seems both clichéd and absurdly inadequate. The studio mock-up of the British trench system fails to deliver the oppressive dirt and squalor of the genuine article and the actors - despite some impressive performances, particularly from Daniel Craig as the careworn Sergeant Winter - always look like actors dressed up as soldiers rather than men who are actively subsisting in their long hole in the ground. Other low-budget war films, such as Joseph Losey's King & Country (1964), have managed to evoke the merciless, class-ridden, rituals of the British Army in World War I, but Losey felt no need to cap his film with a major battle he couldn't afford to stage.

Despite its Great War setting, Boyd's screenplay is structurally reminiscent of two British war films set in World War II: Carol Reed's The Way Ahead (1944) and Leslie Norman's The Long and the Short and the Tall (1960). The first is an optimistic platoon-focused film in which the men learn to work with each other before going into action. The second is a kind of Angry Young Man-era cynical riposte to The Way Ahead: a pessimistic platoon film in which the men constantly argue and are unprepared for the Japanese ambush which overtakes them. Boyd's film wavers indecisively between the bonding rituals of the first and the sarcasm of the second. The character of Victor Dell and his abusive treatment of the German prisoner are reminiscent of a similar scene in The Long, in which a Japanese prisoner is captured. But The Trench also emphasises the group's camaraderie, with its geographical cross-section of troops drawn from all over the British Isles. However, Boyd's script is unduly schematic. With the exception of Winter, the characters come across as writer's devices rather than real people and the funereal tones of the music score has the effect of embalming them from the start in tragic hindsight.

At least Boyd's film conveys the central failure of the generals' tactics in this war. It didn't matter whether the attacking troops were well trained or not: many would be killed before they had even fired a shot. The long dawn wait before the men finally go over the top generates a palpable tension and it is here that his direction and his cast's committed performances come into their own. That highly evocative sequence apart, the main problem with film is that it says nothing that hasn't been said more powerfully and more persuasively by other films. Although it's a useful beginner's guide to the war movie and to World War I, for real trench-level tension and terror look elsewhere.


Steve Clark-Hall
William Boyd
Director of Photography
Tony Pierce-Roberts
Jim Clark
Laurence Méry-Clark
Production Designer
Jim Clay
Evelyn Glennie
Greg Malcangi
©Somme Productions Ltd
Production Companies
A Blue PM/Skyline Films/Galatée Films production with participation of British Screen in association with The Arts Council of England and Bonaparte Films Ltd
With support of Canal +
Supported by the National Lottery through the Arts Council of England/Bonaparte
Finance provided by British Screen through The European Co-production Fund (UK)
Executive Producer
Xavier Marchand
Jacques Perrin
Christophe Barratier
Line Producer
Mairi Bett
Production Co-ordinator
Emily Stillman
Location Manager
Chris Morgan
Assistant Directors
Cordelia Hardy
Adrian Toynton
Fiona Gosden
Chris Stoaling
2nd Unit:
Andrew Woodhead
Script Supervisor
Liz West
Mary Selway
Jennifer Duffy
ADR Voice:
Louis Elman
Additional Photography:
Colin Corby
Phillip Sindall
Visual Effects
Smoke & Mirrors, London
Visual Effects Supervisors:
Tom Sparks
Sean Broughton
Visual Effects Producer:
Emma Ibbetson
Motion Control Sequence
Motion Track Control
Camera Tracking Company
Sam Heaphy
Malcolm Rogers
Jonathan Richardson
Rob McNab
Libra Head
Camera Revolution Ltd
Dave Freeth
Motion Control
Motion Control Cameras (UK)
Ian Menzies
Special Effects Supervisor
Graham Longhurst
Art Director
Phil Harvey
Set Decorator
Val Wolstenholme
Scenic Artists
Steve Mitchell
Stuart Clarke
Costume Designers
Lindy Hemming
David Crossman
Make-up/Hair Designer
Ann Buchanan
Make-up Artists
Kevin Alexander
Susan Howard
Make-up Effects Consultant
Nick Dudman
Peter Govey Digirama
Production Sound Mixer
Chris Munro
Re-recording Mixers
Dean Humphreys
Tim Cavagin
Supervising Sound Editor
Jonathan Bates
Dialogue Editor
Phil Bothamley
John Bateman
Pauline Griffiths
Jenny Lee-Wright
John Bateman
Great War Adviser
Taff Gillingham
Stunt Co-ordinator
Tom Delmar
Paul Nicholls
Billy Macfarlane
Daniel Craig
Sgt Telford Winter
Julian Rhind-Tutt
Ellis Harte
Danny Dyer
Victor Dell
James D'Arcy
Colin Daventry
Tam Williams
Eddie Macfarlane
Antony Strachan
Horace Beckwith
Michael Moreland
George Hogg
Adrian Lukis
Colonel Villiers
Ciarán McMenamin
Charlie Ambrose
Cillian Murphy
Rag Rookwood
John Higgins
Ben Whishaw
James Dennis
Tim Murphy
Danny Nutt
Charles Cartmell
Harold Faithfull
Tom Mullion
Jenny Pickering
Maria Corrigan
Tom Silburn
Dahren Davey
Jamie Newell
Liam King
Stan Charity
Luke Ducket
Chris Bridgeman
Guy Barrett
additional platoon members
Entertainment Film Distributors Ltd
8,879 feet
98 minutes 39 seconds
Colour by
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011