It is an undeniable fact that the First World War was a cataclysm of unprecedented proportions, and that the conditions suffered by those who fought it were unimaginably grim. From the mud, constant shelling, ridiculous commanding officers regularly sending their men to a squalid death, the vermin in the trenches, the dead bodies littering everywhere, the horribleness of it all is epic in proportion.
And yet, in a peculiarly British way, there was still humour to be found in this most humourless of settings, and there were some minds so irrepressible they managed to get a newspaper printed in the middle of the trench so as to spread that humour. It was a vent through which the Tommies let of steam about the commanders, the conditions and life in general. Having an outlet and being able to laugh must have been a great relief to some of the men on the front.
This fascinating film tells the story of the men behind that newspaper - The Wipers Times. It's a beautifully produced piece that follows Fred Roberts, an engineer in the trenches, who comes across a printing press when out scavenging for materials with his squad. He soon has an idea to let off a bit of steam and the Wipers Times (named after the Tommie's mispronunciation of Ypres) was born. We then follow Roberts through the rest of the course of the war, as he and his squad are moved from Ypres to the Somme and back. Along the way there is injury, death and destruction, but plenty of very black humour also. Roberts has to fight off a senior officer who believes the paper to be treasonous, but luckily has the support of an even more superior officer who sees the need for the Tommies to have a vent.
It's a well constructed and excellently produced film. Ben Chaplin really shines as the irrepressible Roberts, aided and abetted by Julian Rhind-Tutt as his Lieutenant. Michael Palin however steals the show as the superior officer supporting the enterprise, sharing the joke with a twinkle in his eye, yet aware of the very serious nature of what is going on in some well expressed and delivered arguments.
It was a film that I enjoyed, and it told me a lot about something I previously knew nothing about, so on that score it gets top marks. But as a film there is something missing. There is a lack of emotional punch, and a sense of meandering in the story line that allowed my attention to wander a little in the second half. So not quite full marks. It's a very very worthwhile watch, with a lot of very well done black humour and some great performances. 4 stars.