Sam Hazeldine faces fears to go deep for ‘The War Below’

Rick's Reviews

Sam Hazeldine (center) stars in a very different kind of war movie with “The War Below.” (Photo courtesy of Vital Pictures)

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (OPINION) — Hollywood’s approach to making movies that deal with war has been to load the screen with massive action scenes and make the hero – or heroes – larger than life. The team behind “The War Below” took a very different approach.

The film – available through digital platforms starting Nov. 11 – goes deep into one of the biggest events of World War I. While war is being waged across bloody open fields, a group of miners give the British another way to stop the enemy – they tunnel underneath no man’s land.

“The War Below” is based on the true story of the “Claykickers” or “Manchester Moles,” working class miners who were rejected from serving in the war. They are recruited by Colonel “Hellfire Jack” Norton-Griffiths (Tom Goodman-Hill) to take on the task of digging a tunnel underneath from the allied trenches to the German enemy lines in hopes of successfully setting off bombs and saving the allied war effort.  

British actor Sam Hazeldine, who plays William Hawkin, one of the patriotic miners, was drawn to the project because of how it distills war down to a very personal level. He wanted to be part of telling the tale of these brave men.

“It’s a story I had never heard before,” Hazeldine says. “I think the miners themselves felt very isolated. Not just because they were underground but made to feel not part of the Army. Their involvement was frowned upon because they were seen as being lower – not only in rank – but because they were just miners.

“It would have been a very lonely place to be if they didn’t have each other. I am sure they did what they did for their country but it was mostly for their families.”

Once Hazeldine heard about the story, he began to do research on the role he would be playing. He discovered that Hawkin – although looked down on because he was a miner – was awarded the Victoria Cross for valor for his work for the Army.

Some liberties were taken with what actually happened in Hawkin’s real life. That didn’t change the respect and feeling of responsibility Hazeldine brought to the set.

“I wanted to try to look like him a bit but not just that. I read lots of things about him. He had a very thick accent and I tried to get that into the film as much as possible,” Hazeldine says. “The burden falls on you as an actor to not let his family or his legacy down.”

Hazeldine jokes that he also wanted to look older because life would have been harsh for Hawkin. He laughs and adds that by the end of the filming, he actually felt a lot older.

Research started long before Hazeldone was cast as co-writers JP Watts (who also directed) and Thomas Woods closely examined this moment of World War. The actual tunnel was dug by a much larger group than the eight men shown in the movie. Keeping the number lower allowed more time to show the lives of these men who spent so much time underground.

Woods was shocked by how the Messines Ridge explosion has been such a shockingly underappreciated moment in British and world history.

“The unbelievable bravery of the men involved is inspiring and deserving of as much documentation and exposure as possible,” Woods says. “This importance meant it was vital for us to create characters that were not just clichéd Great War figures, but instead, to delve into the working-class roots of these Royal Engineer miners who were so vital to the mission, to understand what drove them beyond mere patriotism.”

Hazeldine was excited to be able to spotlight the efforts of these men but it meant he would have to deal with some personal demons. The actor suffers from claustrophobia.

He explains that he has never been clinically diagnosed with having claustrophobia but certainly has a deep dislike of tight and confined spaces. A movie that deals with men digging underground is loaded with tight and confined spaces.

“Luckily, the stuff we had to do in the tunnels – although it was pretty claustrophobic – were opened up to allow for a camera crew,” Hazeldine.

Since launching his professional acting career more than two decades ago, Hazeldine has played a variety of roles on TV and film. There haven’t been a lot of acting jobs for Hazeldine where he has had to deal with so many tight spaces.

His credits include the films “The Last Duel,” “The Intergalactic Adventures of Max Cloud” and “Ashes in the Snow” while his film work includes “Resurrection,” “Peaky Blinders” and “The Innocents.” Hazeldine has no preference which medium he works in as long as the story is interesting.

He found the role in “The War Below” to be interesting enough he was willing to deal with all of his concerns regarding tight spaces.

The cast of “The War Below” also includes Kris Hitchen, Douglas Reith and Sam Clemmett.

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