Written and Directed by Michael J. Bassett Deathwatch was Bassett’s first time at bat as a director. All in all not a bad start as either a writer or director. The film looks good, it sounds good and Bassett benefited from having a very talented cast to work with.
Set in 1917 during World War I, Deathwatch follows a small bunch of survivors from Company Y. The majority of the company have been wiped out by a machine gun nest. Sgt Tate (Hugo Speer) gets caught in German barbed wire and the youngest member of the company, Pvt Charlie Shakespeare (Jamie Bell) is too terrified to help him get free. Morning comes and the men attempt to move forward. They suddenly find themselves in a fog or mist. Thinking that this is a gas attack the men don their gas-masks and attempt to carry on.
After the fog clears the men find they are right on top of a German Trench. There seem to be very few German soldiers so the men decide to capture the trench and hold it for British forces. They shoot a few soldiers, who appear to be shooting at something further down the trench. They kill one, lose another and capture the remaining soldier for interrogation. As they spread out in the trenches they find a large amount of dead German soldiers. A lot of them seem to be caught up in their own barb wire.
Things are decidedly weird in this trench. As they go about destroying portions of the trench in order to make it easier to defend, they start hearing noises. They also start acting strangely and are apparently hallucinating. They decide finally to question the captured soldier. Using French, Shakespeare translates what the German soldier is saying, the trench is evil and they must all leave it or die. Pvt Quinn (Andy Serkis) knocks the German out and wants to kill him. He is denied this and generally wigs out, although Quinn doesn’t seem too tightly wound to begin with.
And just when you thought things could not possibly get worse, they can and do go down hill rapidly.
Bassett choosing World War I as a backdrop was a stroke of genius. The First World War centred on trench warfare. Thousands of lives from both sides were lost as they attempted to storm the enemies trenches. Usually fortified with heavy machine guns and cannon, they were practically impregnable. As most of the action took place on the ground, (air attacks were limited to the use of steel darts dropped on the trenches, dropping crude bombs and dropping mustard gas) casualties on both sides was high. The British in particular suffered huge losses due to the lack of experience of their class driven commanding officers and because the people who were making the decisions were miles from the action.
The general mood of the film is dark. It seems to be constantly raining in the film with the end result of everything happening in mud. The Company survivors have no contact with their command except on a captured radio that ceases to work after they receive only one transmission from command stating that no support is coming for them.Bassett manages to mix the atmosphere of the war with supernatural evil. The evil oozes slowly in the trenches at first but the longer the soldiers stay there, it’s presence and influence begins to pick up speed,
The film was not received very well when it was released in 2002, but that seems to be mainly because a lot of the props and images used did not fit the time period. Apart from the obvious mistakes, it is still an impressive film and I would recommend it to anyone.