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Filming Faulk’s epic novel of love and the Somme: the story so far…

News from the set of BBC’s epic WWI drama Birdsong, now in production, is slow in coming, but here’s what we know at this point:

Cover of Sebastian Faulks' BirdsongIn May, the BBC revealed that Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks’ epic 1993 novel of illicit love, friendship under fire, and the ‘Great War’ that eventually alters everything, would finally be produced as a two-part television drama. This possibly disappointed some fans who for years have looked forward to a big screen adaptation.

That this hugely popular bestseller is coming to the screen at all, however, is certainly cause for excitement. Early, if so far meager, indications are that viewers will not be disappointed.

Birdsong is the story of young Englishman Stephen Wraysford, who, while temporarily attached to a textile plant in France in 1910, finds himself drawn to the plant owner’s beautiful wife Isabelle. They soon begin an intense affair that eventually meets an abrupt – and unexpected — end.

Much of the novel is set six years later, in the trenches near Amiens, during the lead-up to, and aftermath of, the infamous first day of the Battle of the Somme. Wraysford and his friend Michael Weir are officers in charge of miners who dig tunnels and set explosives beneath enemy lines prior to the campaign.

One of the miners is Jack Firebrace, whose life will intersect with Stephen’s in a profound way.

British Tommies going over the top at the Somme

British Tommies going over the top at the Somme

Perhaps the most gripping arc in the story is the actual first day of the Somme battle itself. Faulks’ descriptions of the carnage and dreadful toll of that day are set forth with harrowing and unforgettable vividness. It’s the most chilling of several strong story arcs that have made Birdsong a much-loved – and bestselling – classic, and it’s sure to be the heart-rending set piece of the film.

Birdsong has sold more than three million copies worldwide.

Making Birdsong: the long odyssey from book to screen

In the BBC film, Stephen Wraysford is portrayed by Eddie Redmayne (Saving Grace, Pillars of the Earth, Glorious 39). His lover Isabelle is portrayed by Clemence Poesy (Harry Potter: Deathly Hallows 1 & 2, In Bruges).

Birdsong had an overwhelming impact on me when I first read it as a teen,” says Redmayne.

While the story has been a gigantic best-seller since it appeared in 1993, and more recently has been produced on the West End stage in London, the novel has long eluded the transition to the big screen.

For 18 years, film rights-holder Working Title has tried to get it there. Many directors have been attached. A number of scripts have been commissioned. Actors have been named and then renamed, among them Ralph Feinnes, Ewan McGregor and Jake Gyllenhaal.

The script being shot is by Abi Morgan (The Hour, The Iron Lady). Philip Martin (Wallander, Prime Suspect 7) is directing.

First Photos of Birdsong? and… the Battle of the Big Budgets

Filming got underway in Hungary in mid-June. One twitter post had Redmayne arriving at the airport in Budapest on June 10. Beyond that, scant information has been forthcoming.

As of August 29, however, these photos of Poesy and Redmayne, labelled Birdsong and bearing the stamp of BBC 1, have appeared on a Clemence Poesy fan site. The shots of Redmayne and Poesy together certainly embody the intensity of attraction between Stephen and Isabelle.

In May, BBC’s Head of Drama Ben Stephenson said Birdsong signals BBC’s intent to start making some of “the best drama in the world.” He added that the network aims to go head to head with American TV in the arena of big-budget drama.

The moving and uniquely British story of Birdsong is certainly big enough for such a budget. If all goes well with filming and post-production, there is no reason the result shouldn’t draw a massive audience, introduce many to the tragedy of the Somme, and give the Americans a run for their money.

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Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong Page (official)

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The horse that carried Spielberg to the First World War

The director had no interest in WW1… until he met an unforgettable horse named Joey.

Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his beloved farm horse Joey, in Dreamworks' forthcoming War Horse

Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his beloved farm horse Joey, in Dreamworks' forthcoming War Horse

I confess to being a bit of a sucker for movies about horses. I watched Seabiscuit twice, and fell in love with the story of Hidalgo. Something about that scrappy, come-from-behind spirit of these amazing creatures that just gets you right there every time. And now, here comes a horse movie that, judging from the trailer, is going to lasso hearts everywhere and ride off with them like… well… like a pack of horse thieves.

This Christmas, Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks Pictures will release War Horse, described as “an epic adventure for audiences of all ages, and an unforgettable odyssey of friendship, discovery and courage.” Spielberg himself directed this epic story of a young boy named Albert and his beloved farm horse Joey. At the outbreak of WWI, Joey is sold to the British cavalry by Albert’s father and dispatched to the front lines. From there, Joey begins an extraordinary journey, fraught with dangers and obstacles. Albert, unable to forget his friend, leaves home for the battlefields of France to find his horse and bring him home.

The film is based on a 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, whose inspiration for the book came from several sources around Devon, where he lives. One old soldier had been “involved with ‘orses” in the day. An old cavalry veteran of the war told Morpurgo how he had confided all his hopes and fears to his horse. Another eyewitness related how the army came to the village to buy horses for the cavalry and for pulling such equipment of war as artillery and ambulances. Researching deeper, Morpurgo learned the tragic facts of how over 10 million horses died in the war on all sides, some 940,000 of them British.

Morpurgo tells of receiving inspiration, as well, from a young boy who had come to his Nethercott farm for city children. Nervous and withdrawn, the child had spoken to no one for two years. One night, Morpurgo discovered the child in the stable, talking “19 to the dozen” to Morpurgo’s horse Hebe about his day on the farm. Morpurgo realized that the horse was listening and, in its own way, understanding the child.

Morpurgo’s War Horse was a phenomenal success and went on to be adapted into a triumphant, international theatrical hit – which is where Steven Spielberg first encountered it with a passionate reaction.

“I thought the story was absolutely fascinating, and I was simply transported,” the director recalls.  “It was a very honest story, I saw it as a movie for families, the journey of a boy and a horse who were once so close, whose destinies drive them far apart. “To me, this is a story about belief, hope and tenacity – the tenacity of a boy and a horse driven by devotion.” he says.

Though Spielberg has directed or produced numerous films and television programs set in the Second World War, including Saving Private Ryan, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Band of Brothers, he admitted in a recent interview with Vanity Fair that, prior to learning about the War Horse book and play, “I had never been that interested in World War One”.

War Horse opens in the US on 28 December, 2011, and in the UK on 13 January, 2012. Produced by Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, War Horse stars Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Peter Mullan, Niels Arestrup, Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irvine, Benedict Cumberbatch and Toby Kebbell. Lee Hall and Richard Curtis penned the screenplay based on the book by Michael Morpurgo and the recent stage play by Nick Stafford, produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain and directed by Tom Morris and Marianne Elliot.

Official movie site for War Horse

All text Copyright ©2011 Rick Koobs

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