Today we welcome Roger Chapman to the site in order to find out a little more about his documentary Last Words: The Battle for Arnhem Bridge. We were big fans of the documentary¹ and so we were keen to find out what motivated Roger to make the film, as well as how he chose the film’s focus and how making it shaped his understanding of the battle and the men who fought at Arnhem. Read on for our review…
First of all, what was it which initially kickstarted your interest in gathering the recollections of these veterans and civilians about Arnhem?
It all started late in 2013 with a lovely Sunday lunch deep in the New Forest in the company of a good friend, Titus Mills, and our respective families. Titus and I were looking through his ‘Arnhem Diaries’ with all the photographs of the veterans, newspaper clippings, beautifully hand written notes and we started to talk about the 70th anniversary of the battle of Arnhem. As Headmaster of Walhampton Prep School, Titus takes a group of children to the Arnhem Commemorations every year and he asked me if I would like to come along in 2014 to film the children exploring the battlefields and meeting the veterans.
It dawned on me that all the surviving veterans must be in their late 80’s or 90’s, so I suggested to Titus that before the 70th anniversary we travel around Britain and record the stories from these brave men who fought in one of the most brutal battles of the Second World War before they are lost forever.
How did your understanding of the battle develop as you investigated and talked to the different interview subjects?
The battle itself turned out to be rather more complicated than I had first imagined with 10,000 men fighting in several different locations at different times. Therefore the sequence of events had to be greatly simplified in a documentary that was trying to focus on the individual stories rather than the overall military picture. What became clear during the months of interviews was just how self-effacing the veterans are. Even during the darkest moments of death and suffering these men showed not just exceptional bravery and dogged determination, but extraordinary moments of compassion, companionship and great humour. After every veteran interview, Titus and I would just look at each other with an emotional exhaustion and feel so full of respect for these ordinary men who had been through such an extraordinary moment in history.
This documentary is very much about the human experience of war. It was never intended to explain battle plans or ask questions about military decisions. The British forces who were dropped deep behind enemy lines to capture and hold a bridge over the river in Arnhem on September 17th, 1944, were expecting a two or three day engagement against little opposition before the main relief army arrived from the south. What actually happened was these soldiers met fierce German opposition, including two Panzer tank divisions, were surrounded, shot and heavily bombarded for nearly ten days. The interest for Titus and I was how anybody, including a well trained soldier, deals with a situation that feels like certain death. They were fighting for their lives. This is different to the surrounding German army who were larger in strength and had the advantage of superior firepower with additional supplies of ammunition and men. For the German soldiers in this bloody battle, it was a different experience.
However, what did develop during the filming process was the inclusion of the Dutch people who were there during the fighting. Their stories give a different perspective on the desperation of the situation and went on to explain why there is such a strong bond between the British soldiers and the Dutch civilians which has grown stronger over the years and still exists to this day.
Did anyone refuse to take part in the film?
Nobody refused to take part in the film although one of the veterans decided not to take part due to ill health.
Interestingly one of the veterans, Mike Dauncey DSO, was very frail on the day we arrived to film him. His son asked that we did not spend more than a few minutes with him as he was very weak. Over an hour later, Mike was going from strength to strength and did a brilliant interview. When I contacted Mike’s son the next day to see if he was alright, it turned out that Mike was quite rejuvenated and had thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. Those first few minutes of Mike’s interview open the film.
The film features certain scenes in which children are present when the veterans are recounting their stories. How conscious were you that they may be tempted to censor their recollections?
Before we started the interviews, I was expecting gung-ho stories of courageous fighting from blood thirsty soldiers. Quite the opposite. For me one of the most interesting characteristics of the veterans was how humble these men are. Their story telling was always measured, modest and honest, so I never felt there was censorship when it came to the school children. They spoke to these ten or eleven year olds with the same sensitivity as when they spoke to an adult.
There is a certain precious feeling which hangs over this documentary which is initiated by its title. I’m referring to the fact that these stories are on the verge of being lost as the remaining veterans begin to pass away, did you have to cut a lot of footage during the interviews? And if so, did the fact that these were so precious make the decision harder as to what to keep and what to cut?
The concept of the documentary is very simple – to tell the story of the battle from beginning to end using first hand accounts without commentary, presenter, moving archive, maps or drama reconstruction. It is a very pure film which actually made the editing process very difficult. The editor Jesse Lawrence and I made the decision to use only complete stories from the contributors without intercutting the veterans or cutting away to other images and to include every veteran that we interviewed which is 19 in total. This requires a lot more effort in the cutting room to ensure each individual story is relevant, fits the time scale, is not too long or deviates and includes the important themes we were trying to convey. Subsequently, there was a lot of very precious material that never made the final cut. This is always heart breaking, but is the nature of film making. What is ultimately important is the finished film as a whole.
We are keeping each complete interview from every veteran we filmed available for archive purposes.
Will you be returning to this area of subject matter again any time soon?
There are no plans at present to revisit this subject matter. However, I would be very interested to develop other ideas in the same style of this documentary.
And that’s all folks! Make sure to drop your thoughts off in the comment box below!