How a British Army Paratrooper Brought Truth to the Epic War Scenes in ‘1917’

paratrooper 1917
Courtesy Image

Paul Biddiss spent 24 years deploying across the world as a paratrooper, the elite airborne regiment of the British Army. But these days he travels the globe to film and television sets, using that experience to make sure filmmakers get military action right, most recently employing his paratrooper training on the set of Sam Mendes’ 1917.

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“There were historical advisors, who had done a lot of reading on the subject, and then there was me,” says Biddiss from his home base in Oxford. The veteran ran a boot camp for the hundreds of background actors, designed through a combination of period-accurate book study and drills performed during his own service. “I did a lot of research on that era of warfare, but was also able to impart to the actors the emotion of being on the battlefield. They have never been tested in the way that those men were tested, and they have never participated in such an unnatural act as stepping into the line of fire.”

Biddiss found a special connection to 1917 during his preparation, finding out that his great uncle was killed that very year as part of the British Army’s advance on the Hindenburg Line. There is no question that soldiering is in his blood, with his father serving as a paratrooper before him and a Royal Marine great grandfather. Now, he strives to honor their memory by helping make sure that what ends up the theater screen is as authentic as possible.

Behind the scenes of "1917"
Behind the scenes of “1917” Courtesy Image

How did the production crew of 1917 get in touch with you?

The production reached out to me while I was out in Malaysia filming the new season of Strike Back, which I have been helping out with for a while now. I guess they had liked the work that I had done with that show and other projects like the Tenerife scenes of Jason Bourne. I had one more stop in Lithuania for work before I would be back in London, but I guess they were fine with waiting for me.

How did you start your preparation for getting the actors ready to play soldiers?

There is a lot of research that goes into preparing for a film like this, no matter how much military experience you have, because each war and each battle is different. The goal is to get the techniques by manual as near as possible to what they were actually doing on the ground in the British Army. I also wanted to understand the mindsets of the soldiers on the ground, so I was reading a lot of old diaries and correspondence that was going out at that time, from everyone from the ordinary ranks to the officers. That reading gave me a lot of insight to how the feeling was on the ground and their attitudes amongst each other.

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What did you discover through that research that struck you?

The men in the front lines of these encounters were basically walking targets. But despite the passing of time, British soldiers in the shit always have the same sense of humor. You could be sopping wet, sitting in the mud, having not slept in ages, and everyone just goes, “Let’s get a brew on.” One of the main problems at that time, which is a common one in most military units, is complete boredom. Now when we think of these epic World Wars, all we picture is these guys going over the top and running at the enemy full steam while explosions are firing off. But that was just a small fraction of their truth, really. There were situations where they might be sitting there in a trench for three to four days straight with absolutely sod all to do. That was a sentiment that I saw often when reading the diaries of these guys. They were just trying to find ways to pass the time. So we depicted that a bit in the film as well, the guys just kicking around.

What was the casting process for the background actors playing soldiers?

Sam was going to be filming in this sweeping one shot, so there was more on demand on them because there wasn’t going to be any assistant directors hiding in the trees giving them cues. There were scenes where he wanted 500 men to be able to operate as a true force, move fluidly with purpose, and know what their job was at every frame. Sam selected the group of faces that he wanted for the film’s background actors, and then he handed them over to me. From there it was my job to make sure that they were fit enough, and that they were mentally robust enough to take an order and carry it through until the end.

George McKay in "1917"
George McKay in “1917” Courtesy Image

How did you do that?

The info that I gathered helped me build the training program that not only specific to the military tactics going on at the time, but also taking into the consideration the mindset of the time. So I ran a two-day selection process where we ran a number of drills using whistle blows. The guys showed up, and I tested them on their mental capability. The drills were basic: marching, doing the proper steps, and holding their weapon properly throughout. I would flag people that didn’t seem to get it quick enough and put them into a separate section. One they were in the sections, I would have them move like they would in and out of the trenches, as led by their section commander. I would watch to make sure that they were able to keep their formation properly, while I yelled new instructions to them. I wanted to see not just how they reacted mentally, but how they engaged themselves physically while under a bit of mental pressure. That was my way of weeding people out.

Did you weed any out?

I had three rules, if they failed at any one of them, they were leaving set. They had three pieces that they needed to take care of at all times: their weapon, their helmet, and their webbing, which was their belt kit. Once the uniforms were on, I wanted them acting like soldiers. I was forced to sideline a few. I had some young lads that were showing up that could only run about 200 meters before they were hacking up. I needed guys that could keep it up for 12 hours a day. I also wanted people who were showing energy in their actions, not just going through the motions. I was also paying special attention to how they were with their weapons because ours had bayonets at the end of them, so I had to trust them with a blade.

Tell me about the weapons.

The armory department sourced Lee-Enfield 303s, which is what was used by the British Army at that time, with bayonets. Everybody went through a bit of firing practice during the day. They were trained in that traditional manner there, but there was also a bit of poetic license taken because the manuals didn’t really address the issue of CQB, or close-quarter battle. It was a fairly new concept to soldier at the time.

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What was it like training up the principal cast?

I was introduced pretty early to George [MacKay] and Dean [-Charles Chapman]. Dean gave me this wonky salute, and I shouted back at him to get his fucking feet and knees together when he saluted me. I could tell I caught him off guard with that, and it took him a moment to realize that I was only joking. But the guys were great lads. They worked hard. I started off by giving them a little shock to the system, like we do in military training. I told them that they were going to be wearing their character boots all through the training because they were too used to wearing trainers. I told them to put the whole lot on. I wanted them to understand the importance of their pouches. I tailored the training a little bit too. George’s character is a bit more experienced and has seen some of the things that can go wrong.

What is an example of an element that you added to represent his experience?

One of the things that wrong at the Battle of the Somme was they realize that the pouches on their webbing weren’t designed very well. The buttons were rubbing up against the trench walls, and rounds were falling out of their pockets. The soldiers weren’t realizing this until they were halfway across No Man’s Land and they would look down to find out they only had a few clips left. The rest were scattered along the battleground. The soldiers found it hard to trust the pouches after that, and commanders would instruct their man to check them to make sure that they had all of their clips. That is something that I wanted to program a bit into the boys, George even more so than Dean, because his character had likely gone through that situation already.

1917 paratrooper
McKay in “1917” Courtesy Image

How did they do with handling the rifles?

We did a lot of firing practices with the 303s, because the British Army at the time put a large emphasis on accuracy. I wanted them to be able to load the rifles without looking. After each time they fired, I would have them do a declaration like, “I have no rounds left sir!” I would go through their pouches after, and if I found a stray round, they owed me a crate of lager. I think George and Dean probably owe me about 20 crates each.

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How else did you prepare them for filming in these muddy trenches?

One of the more timely elements that I really pushed home to George and Dean was to take care of their feet. One of the highest non-combat injuries was foot rot or trench foot. Because guys weren’t able to take care of their feet properly, they were getting damp and eventually getting so debilitated that they had to get taken off the battlefield. That was a serious consideration for the two main characters, because they are doing a lot of walking around and marching through wet mud for somewhere around 12 hours a day in period-accurate boots. There was no question that their feet were going to start suffering if they didn’t take good care of them. Not just the characters, but the actors as well, we couldn’t have them falling victim to those kinds of injuries because they needed to be shooting that whole time, and if they go down, there is going to be a serious delay to the production. I made sure that they were instructed to look after their feet in a manner that soldiers in the military today are taught.

Did they ever ask you about your own time in the military?

The questions that they asked were specific and appropriate to their characters. They asked what it would feel like going up out of the trench into the line of fire. I shared with them the feelings that I had as a paratrooper, you are jumping out of a C-130 at 600 feet at night with a load of equipment around you. You have 45 guys behind you following you into complete darkness. You have about 12 seconds in the air before you hit the ground like a sack of shit. You just hope that your chute opens and that nobody tangles into you. I mentioned that what we do is an unnatural act, jumping out of a perfectly serviceable aircraft like that. I explained to them that there is nothing that you can do to get rid of the fear entirely, all you can do is be aware of it and control it.

Was there one experience in particular that you shared?

I gave them a memory I had of when I was a 19-year-old paratrooper, and I was just about to walk out into a pretty intense situation where there was the threat of fire. There was the possibility of someone down the street with a Dragunov ready to take my head off. This was my very first patrol, and my first time walking out into any kind of threat like that. I shared with them the thoughts and feelings that rushed through my head. All of your senses become heightened, and you become more aware of your breathing and the sounds of the world around you. That is why they wanted me there, to try to share the emotional arc that a soldier of that age goes through.

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