Coward, a short film by director David Roddham, tells the tale of two Irish cousins, James (Sean Stewart) and Andrew (Martin McCann) who enlist to fight in the trenches of Ypres in WWI. The film highlights the injustice and lack of understanding that led to many soldiers being shot for desertion or cowardice, when it has been now widely accepted that they were suffering from shell shock, or post traumatic stress disorder. In fact, the British Government recently finally “pardoned” executed soldiers with this stain on their character.
Apart from the whole ensemble, in front of the camera and behind the scenes doing sterling work, the most striking aspect is the stunning cinematography, highlighted in the latest issue of American Cinematographer. Director of photography Stephen Murphy told the magazine he and Roddham wanted “an old school visual approach. We aren’t hugely enamoured of the current trend of shooting with shaky hand held camera and using rapid cuts. We wanted to slow things down and distil the visual storytelling into a simple fashion to reinforce what these [soldiers] had to cope with: a relentless assault, both literally and metaphorically. We’re both big fans of David Lean, and we’d love to see that kind of cinema being made again.”
The film achieves an epic look on 35mm film in the anamorphic 2:40:1 aspect ratio. Eighty percent was shot on up to 50mm. Murphy even shot close, trench filled shots with wide angle lenses to fill the frame with “the brutality of an environment.” The bulk of the film takes place over one day, and the cinematographer used different lenses and filters to impart a sense of time and weather conditions changing.
Just like Stanley Kubrick in Paths Of Glory, the crew filmed a long, uncut dolly shot that tracks parallel to our protagonists perilous advance through no-man’s land. “No-man’s land was so sodden with mud and water it was almost unwalkable.” They had to bring in an excavator to carve a path out for the 120 feet of track required.
One beautifully lit shot reminded me a little of Roger Deakins’ golden suffused introduction to Rooster Cogburn in the Coen’s True Grit. Andrew is being Court Martialled, and stands before officers sitting in near silhouette. “I had double nets on the curtains and a warming gel on the lights.”
See how the film was made, and the finished result, below.