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Dyer Diary 4: The Trench (1999)

Forget what you know, or what you think you know, about Danny Dyer the actor for a moment and consider this…

The Trench (1999) may have sunk into the mud and oomska of cinematic history with barely a trace (and it may have more in common aesthetically with Blackadder Goes Fourth than Paths of Glory) but it captures Dyer at a remarkable point in his career.

Fresh from successfully graduating from child actor (working with Helen Mirren, David Thewlis and Derek Jacobi), he had launched his film career as baby-faced drug enthusiast Moff in Human Traffic.  Due to the film’s troubled post-production and slow burning success on VHS, it wasn’t until after the release and swift death of The Trench that Dyer would be held up (by some) as an icon for the e-generation and would struggle to open his mouth without someone sticking drugs in it. This ushered in a decade of hedonistic binging, punctuated with breakdowns, periods of depression and some terrible career choices.

The Trench came several years before Dyer cemented his reputation for playing cartoon hard nuts in rubbish British films by Nick Love, most notably The Football Factory (2004) and The Business (2006). It also caught him before he became one of Harold Pinter’s stock actors, which not only proved he could act but also made him the envy of many an A-list star with theatrical ambition.

This is a film which not only showcases his talents but also acts as a memento for a period of ascension in which he achieved pretty much everything he set his sights on and anything seemed possible.

The Trench (1999)

In a nutshell: Want to see a man’s spine sticking out of his severed torso? Want to see James Bond push Danny Dyer’s face in to the mud until he nearly drowns? Come and watch The Trench! Who will live and who will die when they finally go ‘over the top’?  That’s right, they all die!  And guess what? It’s not nearly as bad as the first ten minutes suggest.

And how my heart sank when the film started. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not badly done but it looks and feels like a television drama, all studio bound and everyone looking a bit too clean.  And as with a lot of war films, having all your characters the same age, sex and dressed the same results in the majority of the characters blurring into everyone else.

But after a couple of clunky scenes things start improving no end. With the start of the Somme Offensive only hours away, the daily interactions of the characters are given a tragic sense of futility and impotence. And yet within their petty squabbles and awkward attempts at bonding and not going insane with fear, I found something profoundly touching and affecting. And oh how my nerves jangled and stomach churned when the crunch time finally arrives and the men climb out of the trench to embrace their bullety destinies.

Now, I don’t want to completely spoil it for you as I recommend watching The Trench but let’s just say that, as part of the first wave, their chances of returning home to keep wicket for the Croydon Gentlemen, or to marry Doris, are at best slim. And yet it is their doomed state which makes their final and deeply personal moments something worth remembering and celebrating.

Even the quickest glance as the cast photo will reveal some fresh faces on their way to becoming stars of cinema and television.  Bottom left is Ben Whishaw (Q in Skyfall and lined up to play Freddie Mercury in the forthcoming biopic), half way along the 2nd row is the lovely Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later, the Batman films & Peaky Blinders) and Julian Rhind-Tutt (Green Wing, Touch of Cloth), and on the far right we have James D’Arcy (Cloud Atlas) and towering above everyone (performance wise) is the Queen’s favourite bit of rough.

In The Films of Danny Dyer (yes it’s a real book), Danny recalls that Craig, Daniel Craig was a quiet and far from confident person, and suspects that he must be struggling to deal with the fame and status of national treasure which comes with playing 007. No one on the set of The Trench was in any doubt of his talents though. “We all knew how brilliant he fucking was, he knew how brilliant he was, we didn’t really have to talk about it”. And what a revelation his performance is!  As the hard but fair Sergeant Winter, Craig holds the film together much in the same way that his character does with his troops.

How was it for Danny? Double-D plays Lance Corporal Victor Dell, a cockney chancer with more front then Sainsbury’s who becomes increasingly at odds with the other men until he’s something of an enemy within. Despite not having much screen time, Danny succeeds in making him stand out from the crowd, taking the early ‘character establishing banter’ scenes in his stride and really showing in onions in the more dramatic scenes.

Everyone in the trench (regardless of rank or experience) faces a crisis of confidence as the reality of what awaits them sinks in, but none fall apart as hard as Dell. When he is sent to collect the rum ration (so the troops can have a tot before going into battle), his bravado vanishes and he ends up hiding in a corner and attempting to crawl inside the bottle. After toying with the idea of drowning him in a muddy puddle, Winter decides that making Dell go over the top in his wretched state is punishment enough.

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“Can I be excused from this morning’s massacre? I need a poo and a snooze”

This is definitely one of Dyer’s good performances. He doesn’t quite have the confidence and charisma he exuded in Wasp but he displays a much wider range of states (anger! crying! being drunk!) and handles all of it admirably.

Final thoughts/conceptual return to the opening blurb: Whatever he became or is now, least we forget that by the final year of the 20th Century, Danny Dyer was a raw, instinctive talent, free of any stage schools pretensions and driven by the knowledge that acting was the only thing keeping him from working on a building site.

His work with Harold Pinter and Nick Love (aka the sublime and the shit)  ran in parallel for much of the next decade until they converged in 2008 when pissed-up West Ham fans turned up on mass to The Duke of York’s theater to rub shoulders with the cultural elite and cheer on Danny in Pinter’s final play No Man’s Land.

But hey, that’s another story.

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