Monday 31 August 2015

Fallen Soldiers

Director: Bill Thomas
Writers: Bill Thomas, Ian Thomas
Producers: Bill Thomas, Jason Emery
Cast: Matthew Neal, Eve Pearson, Jon Lee Pellet
Country: UK
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: online screener

Fallen Soldiers managed to get all the way through development, production and post-production without appearing on my radar so that the first I knew about it was when I spotted it on Amazon. I posted a piece about the film on my British Horror Revival blog which was spotted by a colleague at work – who said she knew the film-makers (and indeed, her other half is actually in the film). By this unexpected route I was able to get my hands on a screener

The subgenre of ‘historical zombie films’ is very small. If we remove the two sub-subgenres of ‘historical zombie films set during World War II’ and ‘historical zombie films set in the Wild West’ we’re left with very few indeed. Off the top of my head there’s this feature and two shorts: Mathew Butler’s E’gad, Zombies! and Ross Shepherd’s Victorian Undead. The big advantage of historical zombie pictures, of course, is that the characters come to the zombie threat without any baggage. In a contemporary zombie film, either the characters have to work out which established zombie tropes apply to these particular living dead, or else you have to set the story in some sort of alternative universe where the post-Romero cinematic zombie simply doesn’t exist. But in anything set before 1968, the whole thing simply becomes ‘a disease’ – which is how it is referred to here.

Bill Thomas’ debut feature, co-written with his brother Ian, is set in Belgium just a few days before the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon, escaped from exile on Elba, has marched North through France, gathering his army about him. The British and the Prussians are racing to try and stop him.

Matthew Neal (who played ‘Freeway Killer’ Randy Steven Kraft in a TV docudrama directed by Thomas) stars as John Cross, a British soldier who hitches a ride in the carriage of Belgian noblewoman Celine (Eve Pearson). Most of the film is a sequence of flashbacks as Cross explains where he has come from and why he needs to get back through the French lines to Wellington’s army.

The story he tells is of how he and a colleague, Hardy (Jon Lee Pellet) unsuccessfully tried to rescue some British hostages from French prison wagons. Instead, the pair find themselves locked up in one of the wagons with Cross’ friend Piper (Zachary Street). When they are given the last rites and a savage, animalistic peasant girl is thrown into the confined space, snapping and scratching at them, they realise that they are more than just prisoners of war.

Long story short, the Froggies have somehow got their hands on a zombie virus. Their grand plan is to use it to reanimate the ‘Old Guard’ elite who died on the retreat from Moscow. This is a great idea but… it basically just remains an idea. It doesn’t fully explain why they are infecting Belgian peasants and British prisoners. And of course reanimating frozen corpses that died three years ago isn’t the same as simply spreading a contagion. The plan seems to be: once a prisoner/patient is infected, their blood is collected and can be used to reanimate an Old Guard soldier. But if that’s so, why all the complications? If you want to reanimate 200 Old Guard, why not just round up 200 Belgian peasants and slaughter them? It’s not like Napoleon ever had any qualms about that sort of thing. The man was a monster.

Matters are additionally complicated by the introduction of another British prisoner whom Cross recognises and who, confusingly, looks like the now-deceased (?) Hardy. It took me a while to work out what was happening. There are secondary flashbacks – within the main flashbacks from Cross and Celine in the carriage – explaining where the zombie virus came from and how it got to Europe. In the third act Cross finally makes it to British lines where we meet a new character who proves very significant and some of the things we’ve only just managed to work out are pulled away from under us as characters reveal different intentions and motivations to the previously established ones.

It all gets a bit confusing, to be honest, a situation not helped by this particular zombie virus have a very significant difference from what we normally expect, which renders it both more and less of a threat.

There’s a lot to commend in Fallen Soldiers. The acting is generally good (barring a few Allo Allo accents), so is the production design. The camera-work is excellent, combining with top-notch sound mixing to really put us into the heat of the action – and effectively disguising any corners cut when shooting a historical on a tight budget. I have to assume that the uniforms and arms are accurate for 1815, and unlike Soldiers of the Damned these clothes at least look lived in. There are a couple of unfortunate anachronisms in the dialogue, both of them in an early scene where Celine’s carriage is stopped at a check-point. A character lets slip the 20th century term ‘okay’ and there is also a reference to ‘saboteurs’. Despite the popular belief that the term comes from French Luddites hurling their clogs or ‘sabots’ into machinery, in fact that word is not recorded until the 1920s (the root ‘sabotage’ dates from the 1890s). Yes, I’m being picky, but these things are worth checking.

More problematic is the very limited number of zombies. We only ever encounter one at a time, and in a confined space usually. Thus there’s no sense of approaching danger, no attempt at evasion. I once described all zombie films as “either a siege or a chase (which is a siege with a vector)”. But Fallen Soldiers is neither of those. It’s a sequence of flashback scenes, some of which involve close combat with a zombie: either a recognisably human one like the peasant girl introduced to the prison wagon, or a barely human reanimated corpse. The very limited nature of these attacks means that the setting becomes largely irrelevant. Any of those scenes could happen in a contemporary zombie tale and all that would change is the clothes.

What we don’t get is what the DVD sleeve promises, which is the living dead in military uniforms. There are no military battles in Fallen Soldiers, no massed ranks, and certainly no zombies in redcoats. Now, to be fair, this is far from being the first or only horror film to grossly exaggerate its content in its marketing to the point of downright deception. That sort of thing goes with the territory, I guess. It is nevertheless disappointing that in a film (actually the only film) about zombies set during the Napoleonic Wars, where most of the characters are military personnel, there’s not a single actual ‘zombie soldier’ (apart from one reanimated Old Guard whose uniform is in no better condition than his skin) and no actual warfare (beyond an artillery bombardment from unseen cannon). There are a number of French soldiers wearing iron face masks which render them conveniently anonymous but they’re just armed goons, like Napoleonic Imperial Stormtroopers. We don’t see them in action.

I must commend Bill Thomas not only on his imagination and originality but also on his ability to use re-enactors and their materiel to create a realistic early 19th century setting. However, I do think he’s been overly ambitious, creating a story which must perforce be largely told in flashbacks and where the really impressive spectacle happens off-screen or only hypothetically. Fallen Soldiers is very, very talkie, especially the climax where characters endlessly explain things to each other. There’s a bit of a fist-fight near the end, but you couldn’t call it an action-packed third act.

More problematical is the way that Thomas has played with the basic core ideas of the zombie genre. It would have been quite enough to set this tale in this previously unexplored place and time. There was no need to add a unique aspect to this particular zombie contagion which makes it actually a completely different thing from what we are familiar with (and which doesn’t, in all honestly, tie in particularly well with the underlying ‘reanimating the Old Guard’ plot).

As the credits rolled and I started thinking about what I had just watched, I can’t say I was disappointed, but I did feel curiously unsatisfied. Fallen Soldiers doesn’t seem to make anything out of its setting. Yes, the eve-of-Waterloo scenario informs the basic premise that is eventually revealed to us, and yes it creates interesting window-dressing in the sets and costumes. But on the level between those two – the actual, you know, story – there’s not much to gets one’s teeth into. After some rumination, it occurred to me that there wasn’t a single memorable image in the film. Just one glimpse of a massed rank of British or French zombie-soldiers lurching across a battlefield, unfazed by musketry hurtling around them, would have been a money-shot par excellence, even if it was just a dream. But there’s nothing like that – or any other sort of arresting and startling visual spectacle. (Frustratingly, the film has been graded throughout to almost monotone, so that even Cross' scarlet jacket is rendered colourless and dull, however bright it may appear in publicity shots.)

Bill Thomas’ day-job is providing props and models for blockbusters like Guardians of the Galaxy, Clash of the Titans, The Force Awakens and assorted Harry Potters. Back in 2009 he directed a short called Butchers Blossom (sic) about a plague in Victorian times but it’s not clear whether that was also a zombie picture.

Fallen Soldiers was shot over ten days in July 2011 as Grist for the Mill (with a few pick-ups later in the year). After lengthy post-production, there was a one-off screening in February 2014 and the film finally made it to DVD in July 2015.

MJS rating: B

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