The U.K.’s ‘Our World War’ TV Series Tries Too Hard
The BBC markets World War I to teenagers… with mixed results
A young tank engineer wanders from his crew and toward the middle of a deserted town. “Hey,” one of his comrades calls. “You should stay near the tank.”
“Why?” The engineer calls over his shoulder. “You gonna leave without me?” The engineer creeps through the town, his weapon drawn. He passes a hanged German soldier. A horse passes, breaking the tension with its whinny. The sound of drum sticks striking each other—as if to get tempo before a long drum solo—blast through the speakers.
Grungy alt-rock plays. German troops pour out of the side streets. The camera pulls in while the British soldiers run. Everything is explosions, rock music and screaming. The visuals are hard to keep clear. Cut to a bird’s eye thermal image of the battle scene.
This is Britain’s newest TV drama—Our World War.
It’s kind of a prequel to Our War, a popular British television series following the war in Afghanistan which used footage shot by real British soldiers. Helmet-cams and cell phones were the camera equipment, young soldiers the crews.
The stories were their own, told in their own voice. They read personal letters, spoke directly to the camera and eulogized lost friends. It’s a unique and powerful program—like a British Restrepo.
Our War was so popular, BBC executives decided to try to do the same kind of thing with World War I. The result is Our World War.
It doesn’t quite work.
Our World War consists of three episodes. Every episode follows a different group, and the writers based the scripts on soldiers’ letters and journals. Each of the accounts are true stories—a point driven home by the generous use of archival footage and old interviews with the subjects.
The first episode tells the story of the first two British soldiers awarded the Victoria Cross—the U.K. equivalent of the Medal of Honor. In it, Britain’s Royal Fusiliers must keep the city of Mons out of German hands.
The machine-gun barrels steam, bridges explode and the characters are paper thin. It’s the weakest and most action-packed episode.
The second is the strongest. Pvt. Patrick Kennedy questions a priest the night before he pulls the trigger as part of a firing squad. He’ll execute a deserter. The story of his life on the battlefield until that point intersperses his late-night moral wrestling with the priest. Kennedy grows into the scars on his face as the episode wears on.
It’s the most effective episode, and the least bogged down by the cute visual tricks the series exploits to hold the audience’s attention.
The third episode rests heavy on those gimmicks. It follows a British tank crew fighting the Battle of Amiens in the last days of the war. It was a turning point for the Allies and a tragedy for Germany. It’s an interesting story, but it’s not served well in Our World War.
This episode typifies the problems of the series—a great story buried under a mountain of bad direction and odd stylistic choices.
The problem with Our World War is that it’s trying to capture the look and feel of Our War.
When characters pick up their guns, we’re treated to cameras peering down the barrel. The tank scenes are often shot through fish-eye lenses, as if the tank crews of the Great War wore GoPro cameras.
In the opening of the first episode, the camera follows behind a bullet as it flies from a gun across the battlefield. At times, the camera sticks to the back of a character as he runs. The screen jitters back and forth from a third-person perspective, looming over the shoulder of the character. The style looks like it’s straight out of a video game.
The music is a problem, too. Every song choice is anachronistic. Prodigy wails during the battle sequences. PJ Harvey croons during emotional moments. Teenage Kicks by The Undertones plays during a training montage of young soldiers.
I love Portishead as much as the next Britpop fan, but hearing Beth Gibbons sing while a British soldier from the early 20th century mourns dead friends and lost innocence is jarring.
It doesn’t stop there. Constant thermal views of the battlefield, as if drones monitored the Great War, muss up the tone as well. In the third episode, outside shots of the tanks are often actual Great War-era footage of tanks.
This mix of real footage, popular music and fancy camerawork waters down the stories. Which is a shame because these stories are really good. The actors are fantastic and the scrips are solid. It’s the directors that let down the audience.
The magic of a show like Our War can never be repurposed for a past conflict. This doesn’t mean the stories of World War I are not worth telling, just that they need more room to breath than the creators of Our World War allowed.