Tag Archives: Birdsong

Birdsong: Part II

I’m a bit behind posting my thoughts on part II of Birdsong.  The conclusion of the series did not disappoint.  I know that there have been some mixed reviews about this adaptation, but I felt the production was solid throughout and thoroughly enjoyed it.

One of the main complaints has been the flashbacks to Stephen’s life before the war threaded in throughout his wartime experience.  But as I said before, I think this only strengthened the story.  The horrors of the war are so vividly depicted that the viewer needs a chance to escape to a time before the nightmare began, just as it is likely the soldiers would have done when things became too much to bear.

Stephen going over the top during the Somme Offensive

Birdsong portrays the First World War very well, hitting all of the major notes that made this war so devastating, including the horrendous loss of life during the Somme Offensive.  I don’t want to write too much in the event some of you have not seen it, but I strongly urge you to watch it online on PBS while it is still available.

There’s also a good interview with Eddie Redmayne about his role as Stephen Wraysford which you can read here.

Jack Firebrace & Stephen Wraysford

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Filed under Period Pieces, World War I

Birdsong: Part I

Written in 1993 by Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong is considered a classic of modern English literature.  It tells the story of Stephen Wraysford, a troubled young man who falls deeply in love with a married Frenchwoman named Isabelle Azaire in 1910.  The book follows Wraysford into the trenches during World War I, and through his eyes the reader experiences some of the major battles fought on the Western Front.  Millions of copies of Birdsong have been sold worldwide and it is regularly voted one of Britain’s favorite novels.  It is considered so significant, in fact, that it is required reading in British schools.

All that being said, I’ve tried picking the book up twice, and have twice failed to finish it.  It’s a tough read.  I breezed through Part I, the portion focusing on the love/lust relationship that develops between Stephen and Isabelle.  But at the beginning of Part II I was suddenly plunged 45 feet below No Man’s Land into a claustrophobic earthen tunnel with Jack Firebrace, a completely new character that had nothing to do with Part I.  The stark contrast between a forbidden love affair  in the lush Amiens countryside and the gritty, depressing conditions of the Great War was a very jarring adjustment.  I put the book down again, time passed, and it went back on the shelf.

Jack Firebrace listening for enemy tunnelers

Then last night the first of the two-part miniseries based on the book aired on PBS.  I tuned in because I was curious how Birdsong would adapt to the screen.  After all, it’s taken Working Title 13 years to get it there since buying the film rights to the book.  And I have to say, I was very impressed.  Unlike the novel, which progresses in chronological order, this adaptation chose to intersperse the pre-war love story scenes as flashbacks Stephen Wraysford has during the war.  The film weaves between the light and the dark, contrasting the young Wraysford and the hardened soldier he turns out to be, leaving the viewer wondering what caused such a transformation in his character.  In the book we already know by the end of Part I, but the series lets the two stories play out simultaneously, so the viewer is left guessing what happens both in the past and present.

Stephen and Isabelle steal a moment alone together.

The cinematography is beautiful, the actors’ performances solid (Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Wraysford while Clemence Poesy plays Isabelle Azaire), and the war scenes bring the bitter reality of the First World War home (a much grittier portrayal than what you’ll find on Downton Abbey).  I look forward to seeing how it wraps up next week.  This adaptation inspired me to take the book off the shelf.  Maybe the third try’s the charm.

Wraysford at the Front

Be sure to check out this interesting article about the filming (and why it took 13 years to get it on the screen).

See my thoughts on Part II here.

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Filed under Historical Fiction, Period Pieces, World War I

Tunnel warfare in World War I

Illustration from Neil Demarco's The Great War

I just read a great article about another, less written about side of World War I: tunnel warfare.  Both the Germans and the Allied forces employed this tactic of digging lengthy tunnel networks that ended underneath the front-lines of the enemy.  Explosives would then be placed at the end of the tunnels and detonated.  However, the tunnels of the Allies and the Germans often came close to each other,  and smaller explosions were used to collapse the enemy tunnels.  Of paramount importance was to make as little noise as possible so the enemy could not detect you.  This was achieved by padding tools used for digging and not wearing shoes.

The work was hellish and could take an enormous amount of time.  The article highlights one successful tunnel network dug by the British, with a total of 21 tunnels dug under a German-held ridge in Messines.  They had taken a year and a half to dig, and when the 600 tons of explosives went off at 3:10 AM in June, 1917, the sound could be heard all the way to London, and 10,000 German soldiers died instantly.  A crater was carved out of the ridge, and the Allies made a rare advance during the stalemate on the Western Front.

Curiously, as the article points out, two mines did not go off during the detonation.  One finally exploded in 1955, killing a cow.  The other has yet to go off.

The article is in relation to the BBC’s adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s novel Birdsong, which has already aired in the UK and will be airing on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic on April 22 & 29.

I recommend taking a look at the article to read about another side of World War I: The heroic sewer rats of the Somme

Also check out this great short BBC video about a tunnel at the Somme battlefield that is being excavated.  It includes an aerial view of a crater formed by one of the explosions, as well as techniques used by soldiers in World War I to detect enemy tunnels.

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Filed under Period Pieces, World War I