Many of the rural scenes, and particularly the panoramic landscape shots, might have been inspired by watercolours painted by Ravilious in the 1930s. One lingering image shows fields sloping downhill, striped by plough or roller, like the fields in 'Mount Caburn'. Another features a pale but incandescent sun rising over misty hills, and another a train steaming across a landscape dominated by the white horse of Westbury.
This is followed by a shot of the interior of the train, in which the white horse appears framed by the window. Perhaps this is coincidence - after all, anyone who has travelled from London to the south-west via Castle Cary will have seen the same image - but I can't imagine there's a Rav fan who didn't immediately think of 'Train Landscape'.
|Eric Ravilious, Mount Caburn (DACS/Artist's estate)|
Anyway, painting was in my mind as I started watching the show for a reason. By chance I had come across an article on the website of Broadcast magazine, in which director Susanna White talked about how she put together the battlefield scenes which I suspect will dominate the remaining episodes. Anyone who tries to dramatize the Western Front is going to be aware of all the films and TV series that have gone before, and at the moment the success of 'War Horse' must weigh particularly heavy.
Ms White says as much in the Broadcast piece, 'Tom [Stoppard, screenwriter] and I had visited the set of Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, trenches stretching as far as the eye could see, wide enough to gallop a horse down. How could we compete? We took the opposite approach and drew on documentary photographs to come up with narrow channels through mud walls, only just wide enough for two men to squeeze past each other.'
|Paul Nash, Wire, 1918 (IWM)|
To create this non-'War Horse' vision of the Western Front, meanwhile, the director turned to another of my favourite artists:
|Paul Nash, Landscape Hill 60, 1918 (IWM)|
'We pared it right back – few duckboards, few sandbags, opting instead for organic curves of pure mud with bare shattered trees, like the spare landscapes in paintings by Paul Nash. One shot of the battlefield at night is a direct quote from a Nash painting, brought to life with moving flares and explosions.'
Is it unusual for a film-maker to seek inspiration in paintings? I don't know. But Nash was there, in the front lines, and he recorded what he saw in an extraordinary series of sketches and paintings. You can see a lot of them on the website of the Imperial War Museum, and they're as fresh and chilling as they were when he exhibited them in 1917/18. He made his first sketches as an infantry officer training with his men in preparation for the Battle of Passchendaele, and he was only able to exhibit them because he fell into a trench one night, broke a rib and was invalided home.
A great deal of cajoling then brought him a commission as a war artist, and he was able to return in the autumn to record the latter stages of the battle. These pictures, which he showed in the spring of 1918, were widely acknowledged as the most authentic vision of the life on the Western Front.
|Paul Nash, Sunset: Ruin of the Hospice, Wytschaete, 1917 (IWM)|
Herbert Read, a serving soldier who would become one of the most influential critics of his time, felt that Nash ‘could convey, as no other artist, the phantasmagoric atmosphere of No Man’s Land.’
I'm looking forward to seeing what Susanna White conjures from Nash's vision. Christopher Tietjens seems like the kind of honourable, sensitive man for whom the trenches will prove hellish but easier to cope with than Society.