Peaky Blinders is one of the most successful drama series ever created for the BBC, running from 2013 to 2022 through 36×60 minute episodes. It detailed the adventures of a crime family from the West Midlands from 1919 into the 1930s (based on the true story of an earlier family), winning several awards and a devoted army of followers internationally. A spin-off feature film has been promised as a 2023 production. I never became a follower of the series but I am interested in the show’s creator and primary writer, Stephen Knight. When he was named as the prime creator of SAS Rogue Heroes (simply Rogue Heroes in the US) I was definitely interested to see what he would do with the creation story of what has become a mythologised British military force. Knight is well-known for several different aspects of his work and they are all to the fore in this new series/serial.
As with Peaky Blinders, there is an emphasis on location shooting (though Morocco rather than Libya/Egypt), seemingly authentic historical artefacts (reconstructed or CGI representations), but also prominent use of anachronistic rock music, copious swearing (probably quite realistic) and modern speech patterns. But features of Knight’s earlier scripts, including his interest in a commentary on class and racial prejudices, are also evident. This is a provocative mix and predictably the first broadcast episode saw both recognition of the entertainment value of the show and criticism from various quarters. I have an ambivalent view of British military heroes who often seem to be used to deliver right-wing ideologies, although historically the British armed forces have been mostly kept out of UK politics. The history of imperial operations, however, suggests a willingness to follow some highly reprehensible political directives. The formation of the SAS (Special Air Service) in 1941 during the North Africa campaign was in the context of a desperate situation with British and Empire forces struggling to contain a German and Italian strike across Libya and into Egypt, threatening control of the Suez canal and opening up the possibility of German seizure of the oilfields in the Middle East. The final battle of El Alamein in 1942 would, like Stalingrad, mark a major turning point in the war.
SAS Rogue Heroes comprises six episodes of 60 minutes and details the development of the idea of a small military force (initially 60 men) operating from a remote desert base and attacking Axis airfields on the North African coast. All six episodes have been made available on iPlayer and I found myself watching all six over a few days. I then discovered that iPlayer also carries the three 60 minute documentaries titled SAS Rogue Warriors (2017), researched and presented by Ben Macintyre using materials from the SAS Archive and interviews with the one surviving member of the original detachment and the relatives of several others. The archive material includes other interviews from 1987 with several of the most important original fighters including the architect of the whole SAS enterprise, David Stirling. Macintyre’s book presenting this research material has been used as the basis for Knight’s TV script.
If you watch Rogue Heroes and think it is fictitious nonsense, wildly exaggerated, please note the statement at the beginning of each episode:
“Based on a true story. Those events depicted, that seem most unbelievable . . . are mostly true.”
After watching Rogue Warriors, you’ll find it difficult to argue with that statement. You may well object to the ‘treatment’ of the important historical facts and their presentation on screen, not to mention the actual invented moments, but the historical record does confirm the validity of the above statement. Just to give one example, one of the three officers (then all Lieutenants) who founded the SAS was ‘Jock’ Lewes, who was the most experienced soldier and took over the initial training as well as inventing his own weapon, the ‘Lewes bomb’ a small lightweight plastic explosive which each man could carry and which could destroy a German aircraft on the ground simply by placing it with a short fuse on the junction of wing and fuselage. Photos show that Lewes was more handsome than any leading actor and moved easily in high society as a suave ‘man about town’.
The events towards the end of the six part series don’t tend to tie up with the events as described in the three documentaries but that’s probably a production issue and they may well appear in a second series. The SAS went on to play an important role in the subsequent landings in Sicily in 1943 and Normandy in 1944 and the campaigns that led to the liberation of Western Europe. This first series of SAS Rogue Heroes ends before the Sicily landings.
Although much of the SAS actions in 1941-2 have only been put on screen relatively recently as the archive has released material, the broader representation of the war in the North African theatre have long been a staple of British cinema. The propaganda films of the time were very popular in British cinemas. Ealing’s Nine Men (UK 1943) by Harry Watt sees a small group of British soldiers holding off a much larger Italian force in the desert (shot on sands in South Wales). Desert Victory (UK 1943) directed by Roy Boulting for the Army Film Unit and the RAF Film Production Unit won an Oscar for its presentation of the Second Battle of El Alamein using combat footage and re-enactment. In the 1950s attention switched to dramas about smaller units in the desert with the most famous example perhaps being Ice Cold in Alex (UK 1958, dir. J. Lee Thompson) with an ambulance crew attempting to cross the desert to reach Alexandria (and the cold beer of the title). Sea of Sand (UK 1958, directed by Guy Green) presents one of the closest narratives to the new TV series since it focuses on a Long Range Desert Group mission and was filmed in Libya. The LRDG were the official reconnaissance and intelligence group in the British Empire forces, with navigators who knew the desert better than anyone else. The SAS were quick to steal some of the best LRDG drivers. One film I must return to is the Nicholas Ray classic, Bitter Victory (France-US 1957) which focuses more on the on the conflict between the officers in a small raiding party on German HQ. Bitter Victory is a French film made as an American ‘runaway’ production and stars Richard Burton as the same kind of middle-class British officer as the SAS leaders, but in this case an academic scholar of Arab and Berber culture in antiquity. Burton had already appeared in The Desert Rats (US 1953, dir. Robert Wise) as a British officer in charge of Australian and New Zealand troops defending Tobruk. Conflicts between the British and French in North Africa appear in SAS Rogue Heroes in various ways. In episode 1, a French intelligence operative in Cairo is introduced, providing the potential for a romance narrative. ‘Eve Mansour’ is played by the Algerian actress Sofia Boutella. I want also to mention The Hill (UK 1965) by Sidney Lumet. Writer Ray Rigby wrote the original novel and a follow-up, Jackson’s War (1967, about his time in military prisons in North Africa in the early 1940s, offering a realist twist on the propaganda films of the wartime period.
The main cinematic reference that has cropped up in reviews is The Dirty Dozen (US 1967, dir Robert Aldrich). Although not similar in terms of its location or the mission that is the basis for its narrative, The Dirty Dozen does offer a kind of template for an an action adventure take on the war combat picture and it does resemble the first episode of SAS Rogue Heroes in showing how a team of independently-minded ‘rogues’ is put together to undertake seemingly suicidal operations. It also relishes the anachronisms of some of its characters – most memorably Donald Sutherland as a hippy tank commander. Finally, I should mention a couple of the stranger films that appeared around the same time. Play Dirty (UK 1969) sees Michael Caine reluctantly leading a ‘Dirty Dozen’-type group raiding a German oil depot. But this is a downbeat story directed by the Hollywood veteran André de Toth. How I Won the War (UK 1967, dir. Richard Lester) sees Michael Crawford as an inept Lieutenant and John Lennon as a British squaddie, initially in the North African campaign. It flopped as an anti-war satire. But both these last two titles were seen in the US as films that not only offended the the ‘Colonel Blimps’ in the UK but also seemed to be part of the developing anti-Vietnam War movement in the US. This in turn raises the question about what the ‘derring do’ of SAS Rogue Warriors is going to be seen as in ideological terms. It’s too early to tell at the moment, but it might be interesting to see how the audience reactions pans out.
SAS Rogue Heroes looks and sounds very good. It’s presented in widescreen at roughly 2.18:1 on iPlayer on my computer. I’m guessing it is meant to be 2.2:1. Tom Shankland is the director for all the episodesand he has an impressive list of credits for long-form TV narratives dating back to 2000, music is the responsibility of Ilan Eshkeri who has similarly impressive credits. As well as the anachronistic songs there are also some wartime George Formby and Noël Coward songs. I’m assuming that at some point we might get a full list of the songs which don’t appear in the credits – a common failing of TV drama, I think. The production design by Richard Bullock also deserves a mention.The film has intertitles stencilled across the screen, giving story locations and dates. It also uses wartime photographs of the historical characters in the SAS to assert its moments of authenticity. This has clearly irritated some viewers but I have no problems with it.
The following clip details the wartime record of David Stirling. There are SPOILERS in this if you haven’t watched the full six episodes of SAS Rogue Heroes:
I am uncertain whether to congratulate or commiserate with Roy for looking at this series. He is right that this military force have been involved in some reationary and very violent operations.
He is wrong to clear The British military of keeping out of British politics; the Curragh mutiny was a reprehensible event that meant that the British problem for the Irish continues to this day. And the involvement in what have been called ‘The Troubles’ have been just as pernicious. The recent ’71’ (2014) has a sub-plot of British machinations. And ‘Who Dares Win’ (1982) has a pretty awful plot about supposed subversives.
Wikipedia has ‘A List of SAS operattions’; it makes salutory reading.
I think I will stick to PBS, ‘The Civil War’, ‘Vietnam’ and the like.
I didn’t ‘clear the British military of keeping out of British politics’. I suggested that they have mostly been kept out of UK politics but that in an imperial context they have shown a “willingness to follow some highly reprehensible political directives”. Ireland is, as I’m sure you’ll agree, an unresolved colonial conflict.
I am not sure what the distinction between ‘British politics’ and ‘UK politics’ means? Britain is the advance capitalist state that includes England, Scot land and Wales. The ‘UK’ is a term that creates the illusion of a unity that also covers the occupied territory in Ireland: settler outposts as in the Malvinas: and those odd territories known as Crown Dependencies. The anachronistic monarchy acts as a facade for this.
In either case the military hierarchy are part of the ruling class of this state: along with the political establishment: and with the owners of capital. It is revealing how often the members of the monarchy parade round in military uniforms. The difference between the home territory and the colonial territories is that naked and brutal force is the norm in the latter.
This class control, repression and oppression can be seen in a number of British films. Mike Leigh’s excellent Peterloo (2018) shows the military actually deciding on how control is exercised against the working class. The earlier Gandhi (1982) shows the even more brutal and larger-scale violence used in a colony, as at Amritsar.
A television mini-series A Very British Coup (1988), adapted from the novel by Chris Mullin, showed just how the co-operation between the military and the political establishment worked. And Ken loach’s Hidden Agenda (1990) showed the co-operation between the Security Services and politics.
Sunday (2002), the better of the two films on Bloody Sunday, shows the collusion between politicians and the military in this massacre. It is instructive that the only person to be held account in a court of law is likely to be a lowly squaddie.