‘Peaky Blinders’ and ‘Rogue Heroes’ creator Steven Knight: ‘History is chaos and madness’
The men of the WWII action TV show Rogue Heroes pioneered a new form of relentless warfare, leading the fight against the enemy without mercy. In the hands of Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight, the flawed founders of the infamous SAS might or might not be heroes, but they were definitely thieves.
In addition to writing Peaky Blinders andKnight recounted real historical events in dramas like Amazing Grace, Spencer (which starred Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana) and a . But he continually returns to World War II in stories like Rogue Heroes, Brad Pitt’s film Allied and an adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See. Knight thinks World War II presents storytellers with a unique opportunity: “It’s good versus bad,” he told CNET via Zoom. “Almost everyone will say that allies are good – well, there might be a few people who disagree with that, but most of the time you have the good against the bad, and when people do something fundamentally good, they can do a lot of bad things and be forgiven.”
Rogue Heroes aired on the BBC in the UK and reached its finale on Sunday, December 18 in the US on Epix (). The action-packed spectacle has been renewed for Season 2, which means we’ll see the men of the SAS fight their way in more daring raids throughout World War II.
In real life, the infamous Special Air Service was founded by maverick officers David Stirling, John “Jock” Lewes and Robert “Paddy” Mayne. Based on Ben Macintyre’s non-fiction book of the same name, each episode opens by noting “those events depicted that seem most unbelievable…are mostly true.” In fact, Knight says he had to tone down some of the more savage real-life events: in one scene he depicts Stirling cleaning out a bar by throwing a smoke grenade at a pool table, but the real Stirling would have used a real real pomegranate. While the competition between the men is a key part of the show, Knight felt that viewers would never believe an actual incident where Mayne learned that Stirling had destroyed more enemy aircraft than he had, and therefore quickly regained the enemy territory to take more for himself – almost getting killed in the process.
Connor Swindells of Sex Education and the Nextplays Stirling as a troubled officer struggling to meet the expectations of his father (a general). As Jock Lewes, Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen and John Wick are the voices of reason in this unholy trio. And finally, Jack O’Connell of Skins, Starred Up and Unbreakable plays Irishman Paddy Mayne as a moving but volatile warrior poet.
Most important to Knight was exploring the people and how they reacted to this extreme and absurd situation, even if that meant polishing up the historical details with additions like a fictional French spy played by Sofia Boutella. “History tends to sweeten things up,” Knight says. “Story [books] select things that make it seem like everything happens for a reason, when in fact there’s a lot of chaos, a lot of randomness, a lot of madness, a lot of human frailty. I tried to stay true to character first, but also true to the randomness of reality. If you can try to write like you don’t know what’s going to happen with these characters, it helps to feel real.”
The reckless soldiers of the new SAS are portrayed as united by disdain for the higher ranks and determined to do things their own way, which means disappearing into the desert and launching explosive commando raids on enemy airfields. Their anarchic spirit is symbolized in the show by an AC/DC soundtrack, the Clash and Motorhead riffing mightily as soldiers spit hot lead from vehicles traversing the desert. The series combines the thrills of soulful war adventures like The Great Escape and The Guns of Navarone with the updated swagger of Peaky Blinders and Inglourious Basterds.
Although O’Connell had previously played soldiers in movies like ’71 and Unbroken, Rogue Heroes was a chance to live out his childhood dreams from his days as a military cadet. “I wanted my stripes and to do exercises, but I never really climbed the ladder,” he recalls. “I wanted to be in the military when I was a kid, but that was probably better advice to pretend.”
But amid the high-octane action, O’Connell notes that the global nature of World War II made it a very different era from contemporary attitudes to conflict. “This war was something that somehow affected everyone,” he said. “What that might do to the mindset as a whole, from a societal perspective, is something interesting to investigate with stories like these.”
On an individual level, O’Connell is interested in people like Stirling, Lewes and Mayne who rose to the occasion in times of war. The real Mayne was a well-bred lawyer and international rugby player rather than the lawless wild man O’Connell plays on the show, but he was also a man who thrived amid chaos and bloodshed. “It’s interesting to understand why,” says O’Connell. “What causes this? It also becomes a fascinating psychological study.”
Unlike most of the other characters, David Stirling’s version of the series is depicted navigating both the chaos of desert warfare and the more subtle savagery of grassroots politics. Calling himself “working class as they come,” Swindells found it difficult to play an aristocratic officer – even a self-loathing drunk – but also saw a character at odds with himself and his place in the world. “He [Stirling] knew that it was necessary for someone to have a position where the strings could be pulled, and he knew he had that ability,” Swindells says of his character. “He wasn’t the most physically gifted of them all, and if anything he had quite a bit of bad luck at first. So the only thing he had in his back pocket was his class.”
While Swindells performed alongside Dominic West and Sofia Boutella in bars and bedrooms, the rest of the cast spent much of their time in the desert. Many actors, mostly young men from the UK, France, Ireland and around the world, have been released from the COVID lockdown for filming in 2021 in Morocco and the UK. “It was more like a band of guys on tour,” says O’Connell, who dryly compares the experience to a bachelor party. “It was like a bachelor party. … It was a good idea.”
For Allen, it was a different experience from directing Game of Thrones, if only because of the isolation of the harsh location. At least the heat and dust of the Sahara helped Allen get into what he describes as a sort of “method of action”, as the cast too realistically portrayed the unpleasantness of being deep in the desert.
O’Connell can’t seem to get enough of playing POWs or sailors lost in the Arctic or countless other men being tortured in gruesome settings. He sees real physical adversity helping his performance. “It gives you something less to play because you’re under the hammer anyway,” the actor explains. “You have a little more license to do [acting] decisions based on what you’re experiencing in real time, which is great fun. In a perverse way.”
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