had been waiting for this series and it finally got to me via Goran
Hedlund. The 6-episode series was made
for the BBC and was one of the most costly projects in BBC history. It also premiered on EPIX. The director was Tom Shankland who is noted
for other TV series. It was filmed in
Morocco. They had a snake wrangler to
clear the sets, but even then a sleeping asp was found sleeping under a chair
causing a minor panic. The crew included
50 stunt men. They made use of Me-109
mockups, like in the “Battle of Britain”.
The series was written by Steven Wright.
He researched using Ben Macintyre’s “Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret
Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of
Warfare”. He also used first-person
accounts and interviewed the veteran Mike Sadler (one of the characters). He provided stories that were not included in
Macintyre’s book. Each episode starts
with the disclaimer: “Based on true
story, the events depicted which seem most unbelievable… are mostly true.” Cheeky, but true. Knight insists that the more outrageous the
incident, the more likely it actually happened.
first episode is set in May, 1941. It
leads with snare drums on the soundtrack.
Before I can finish shaking my head at this trope, here comes an AC/DC
song as a convoy crosses from Cairo to Tobruk.
The trucks come to a halt in the middle of the desert because they
carried enough gasoline for 500 kilometers instead of 500 miles. An officer named Stirling is disgusted with
this incompetence. Within the first ten
minutes, it is obvious this is not your father’s WWII series
main characters are quickly introduced.
David Stirling (Connor Swindell) is a heavy drinker who has been in the
Army since he was a teenager. He has
contempt for higher ups and the social standing to get away with it. Paddy Mayne is a low-born brass-hater who is
constantly in trouble. His alcohol consumption
makes him a loose cannon ready to explode.
Jock Lewes (Alfie Allen) is a strict officer, but good leader. Lt. Col. Dudley Clarke (Dominic West) is
first seen in drag, but he is an officer who is a wiz at deceiving the
enemy. Clarke is in league with a sexy
French intelligence agent named Eve (Sofia Boutella), but she will be Stirling’s
creates a commando unit that will harass the German/Italian supply line. He brings on Lewes to train the hand-picked
men. You have to be a renegade to
qualify. Mayne is recruited by Sterling
after escaping from a jail cell after he beat up a Major. The other men are the usual motley group that
you see in war movies that involve a suicide mission. Originally, the idea was the SAS (Special
Air Service) would be paratroopers.
Sterling talks Gen. Auchinleck into backing the unit by promising him the
SAS will destroy more Axis planes than the Royal Air Force.
first mission is going to be a paradrop, but a sandstorm makes it very risky. Stirling forces the pilot to take off. When they land, the wind pulls their
parachutes across the desert. Some of
the men are killed when they strike objects.
The men are scattered, some are picked up by the jeeps of the Long Range
Desert Group. (For American baby boomers, they would be similar to the Rat Patrol, but were used mainly for scouting and as a sort of taxi service for the SAS). This introduces Sgt. Mark Sadler (Tom
Glynn-Carney). This fiasco results in 22
out of the 55 men being killed or captured.
One of the dead is Mayne’s best friend.
From now on, they will use jeeps to ingress. The next mission is more
successful as the four main leaders attack four air bases using Lewes bombs
named after their inventor - Jock Lewes. The episode jumps between groups and the
places are identified on the screen. (The
series also does this to identify new characters.) Mayne’s group sets one of the themes by slaughtering
unarmed Germans in a barracks where they are socializing. The theme is there are no gentlemanly rules
in their type of warfare. They start
keeping score of how many planes each leader destroys. This exacerbates the simmering
dysfunctionality between Stirling and Mayne.
Not to mention the dispute between Stirling and Clarke as to who created
the SAS and how it should be used. This
mission proves the efficacy of vehicular raids and the rest of the series will
reenact several, with plenty of gunfire and explosions. The vicious nature of their tactics are
contrasted to their trips to Cairo for rest and recreation.
episode 4, the Brits are united with French paratroopers. Stirling assigns Maynes, of all people, to
train them. Meanwhile Stirling
infiltrates Benghazi with Randolph Churchill in tow. Later, Stirling meets Randolph’s father. He breaks the ice by telling Winston that he
has a rash on his c---. Unfazed, Winnie
asks him to use the SAS to help get a crucial convoy to Malta through. “Let slip the dogs of war” is Winston’s advice.
That would make a good motto for the
unit. This sets up the big final
mission. Not everyone will survive, but
the Germans and Italians will suffer.
Don’t get too attached to any of the characters
AC/DC song sets the tone early. The
series is accompanied by 1980’s rock, including punk rock. That is not the only genre. In one sequence, the episode moved from a
march to rock to swing to belly dance music.
Before you yell “anachronism!”, the idea behind the odd choice of music
is the series is about a unit that does not play by the rules, so the series
shouldn’t either. Personally, I loved
the music. It does fit a series that is
not your traditional WWII show. The
length of the series allows for the development of some fascinating individuals
and they are all real people, except for Eve.
As you can read below, there were liberties taken with Stirling, Mayne,
Lewes, and Clarke, but this was within acceptable artistic license. The raids are well within acceptable
history. The series does not depict the
missions in a hagiographic manner.
Mistakes are made and lives are lost.
The show has a big budget for blanks and those blanks are fired from
vintage weapons. The explosion budget
was also high. For men, this series has
it all, including some cheesecake from Ms. Boutella. Cover your kids’ eyes when she is in a bed,
but you won’t need to for the action scenes as the series is not graphic.
cast is outstanding and they are all-in.
I don’t know what the experience was like filming in Morocco, but it
probably helped them get into character.
The Stirling/Mayne dynamic is at the core and Swindell and O’Connell are
outstanding. There is a nice cameo by
Jason Watkins as Churchill. The actors
get good dialogue to work with. The cinematography makes it an interesting
watch. In a nice touch, archival footage is blended into the action. Everything points to a prestige project.
series ends with several questions unanswered.
They are already planning a second series to deal with the unit’s
actions in Europe. Let’s hope the high
quality continues. And it keeps its
Quentin Tarantino vibe.
GRADE = A-
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: David Stirling was the son of a general. He left college to go to Paris to become an
artist. He was a mountaineer who was in
training to climb Mt. Everest when the war began. He joined the commandos. When Force
Z (later called Layforce) was disbanded because of heavy casualties on Crete he was out a job. He snuck in to see Gen. Auchinleck and got
him to approve the idea that became SAS.
Mayne was not lowborn. He came from a
landed family. He became an outstanding
rugby player, boxer, and golfer. He was
in the artillery before joining the infantry.
He became a commando and first saw action in Lebanon fighting the Vichy
French. He did attack a superior officer
who he had a feud with. The beating he
doled out was provoked by the killing of his dog (not a chess game). He was not imprisoned for it, but he was
dismissed from Commando 11. He did join
the SAS with best friend Eoin McGonical.
During the period covered by the series, he was credited with the
destruction of 100 aircraft. He was
awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his actions in their first
successful attack. It was Italians he
massacred, not Germans.
Lewes was born in India and grew up in Australia. He attended Oxford. While working in Berlin for the British
Council, he flirted with admiration for Hitler and Nazism. It’s temporary. He enlisted before WWII began. He was an infantry officer before Stirling
recruited him for the SAS. He was in
charge of training, but he also led raids.
He did invent the bomb named after him.
It was a combination of plastic explosives, diesel and thermite. Spoiler:
he did die when his jeep was attacked by a plane. He was hit by shrapnel in the leg and then
killed by a bullet.
Clarke was born in South Africa, but grew up in Britain. For WWII, he joined the royal artillery and
transferred to the Royal Flying Corps.
He spent the war in flight training.
In the interwar years, he returned to the artillery and then joined
intelligence where he found his niche.
In Cairo in 1940, he was assigned the job of coordinating strategic
deception. He went on to become “the
greatest British deceiver of WW2.” One
of his talents was creating orders of battle that would fall into enemy hands
and convince them that the British had phantom units and/or placing actual
units away from where they were. The SAS
was originally one of those fake units. He
also organized small commando raids into France. Clarke did have wild personal life. The series introduces him with an homage to
his notorious arrest in pre-war Madrid dressed as a woman.
far as the missions, the series gets them mostly accurate. On their first mission (Operation Squatter),
they did foolishly jump in a sand storm with disastrous results. 22 of 55 were killed
or captured. They did set up base at
Qaret Tartura on the edge of the Qattar Depression. They did steal from a New Zealand unit to get
set up. They were equipment and vehicle
poor until they got successful. The
first jeep (modified American jeeps) attack was basically as shown. They hit three airfields in Libya and
destroyed 60 aircraft. Mayne’s group did
slaughter unarmed Italians (Germans in the show). Lewes was killed in the manner shown in the
Stirling did take Randolph Churchill on a
raid into Benghazi. It was not as
successful as the series implies. The
episode does not show Randolph severely dislocating his back when the truck he
was riding in overturned. The series is
accurate in depicting that the support of Winston Churchill got the unit all
the weapons, vehicles, and manpower needed.
This manpower included a unit of French paratroopers led by Georges
Berge. He was captured in the raid on
biggest success is covered in episode 6.
On July 26-27, 1942, 18 jeeps raided five airfields along with the raid
on Crete. Stirling did ride down the airfield at Benina strafing the aircraft. Stirling was captured when his jeep was
ambushed in Jan., 1943. By then, Rommel
was referring to the thorn in his side as “The Phantom Major”. I think it’s safe to assume he won’t be
playing a major role in the next season.
But since Mayne gets promoted to command the SAS, there’s bound to be
plenty to entertain viewers.