The secret is out. For the past year and a half three big beasts of British storytelling have been collaborating on a television series that could change the way we see war on-screen. Antony Beevor, our preeminent war historian, whose books have sold more than eight million copies; Ridley Scott, the formidable director of Alien and Blade Runner; and the Oscar-nominated Steven Knight, who wrote the films Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, are behind the series, which will recount the final year of the Second World War in Europe, from June 1944 to June 1945.
With the working title Roads to Freedom, it will tell the story from a panorama of perspectives: British, American, German, French and Russian; soldiers and civilians; men, women and children.
That 360-degree approach has characterized much of Beevor’s work and the series will draw on his books including Berlin: The Downfall 1945; D-Day: The Battle for Normandy; The Second World War; Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble; Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges, 1944; Paris After the Liberation, 1944–1949; and another that he edited, A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941–1945. Stalingrad, Beevor’s best-known book, covers an earlier period, but will provide background details.
Not Saving Private Ryan
Beevor, 74, hasn’t written for the screen before, but this former lieutenant with the 11 Hussars cavalry is relishing the challenge. “It will be hugely exciting,” he says by phone from his home in Kent, where he lives with his wife, the biographer Artemis Cooper.
He has written the outline and most of the characters for the series, which is expected to have ten parts, but could be longer. This week they will pitch it to networks and streaming services — he can’t say which, but a couple of high-profile companies are interested. No actors are officially attached yet and no premiere date has been announced.
Once they have the green light — which, let’s face it, they will get from someone — Beevor and Knight will work together on the scripts. “Steve will probably do the bulk of it and I will be providing the detail and the historical elements,” Beevor says. Scott, who is lined up to direct the pilot episode, has his own stories to add to the mix. His father was an officer in the Royal Engineers who was closely involved with rebuilding postwar Germany.
The aim of the series, Beevor says, is to “show the reality of what it was like for people on so many different sides, not just the fighters. It’s not going to be Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan.” They were more interested in “the paradoxes and the gray areas. The point is to avoid the whole good-and-evil thing, to show you can have people who do very good things and very bad things in the same day.”
Tension between the allies will be a theme, and the suspicion of the Soviets toward the West. The title, Roads to Freedom, is “deliberately double-edged”, Beevor says. “Half of Europe was liberated and half fell under Soviet dictatorship.”
The Soviet soldiers hoped that victory would remove the need for Stalinist repression “because the threat of fascism will have been conquered. But of course the fist was about to close around them — 300,000 or so of the Red Army were arrested in 1945 for subversive conversations.” Stalin had learned the lesson of the Napoleonic Wars: “The soldiers have seen abroad and then they come home — that’s when you’re going to get danger and dissatisfaction.”
The aim of the series, Beevor says, is to “show the reality of what it was like for people on so many different sides, not just the fighters.”
Human stories will come to the fore. “Over the last 30 years I’ve encountered so many different examples that show how fragile life is — literally the turn of a coin can define whether someone lives or dies,” Beevor says.
He recalls one story told by an old man who as a boy had been part of a group of German refugees fleeing from East Prussia in January 1945. The frozen Vistula Lagoon stood in their way. “The Soviets had surrounded them and their only way of getting through to Germany was to cross the ice,” Beevor says. “They could hear carts falling through the ice and people drowning around them.” The man who told the story was dying. “His very last words were, ‘I can hear the cracking of the ice.’ ” You can already picture it on-screen.
Many of the characters will be based on real people “but probably with different names”, Beevor says. He can’t say more at this stage, but promises that among the main protagonists will be “one or two quite controversial characters, members of British special forces who, shall we say, did not behave very well at the end. The looting was simply staggering.” He laughs incredulously at the choice of code name for the British operation to cross the Rhine: Operation Plunder.
That said, he thinks that in comparison to other armies the British behaved “pretty well” at the end of the war. “Some people say they raped less because they had bromide in their tea. I think it was because the British NCOs made sure they knew exactly what the soldiers were up to.”
The series will feature more female characters than we are used to in war stories. One lesson Beevor has learned, he says, “is that women are far better witnesses because they aren’t trying to reimpose their control over the past. Women kept their eyes open and their mouths shut.”
He remembers talking to Russian women who had been involved in the anti-aircraft batteries at Stalingrad. “You could see the difference between them and the veterans, who were desperately trying to impress us. The women were just telling us completely honestly what they’d experienced. No bullshit at all.”
One lesson Beevor has learned, he says, “is that women are far better witnesses because they aren’t trying to reimpose their control over the past.”
A lack of bullshit is vital, says Beevor, who is withering about most war films and series. “Very few have done it well. I’m afraid the Americans have always sentimentalized war to some degree. ‘The Greatest Generation’ has become a bit too much of a touchstone.
“But I do think that has started to improve greatly in America. When my book on the Ardennes was published I was fairly nervous because I showed it wasn’t just the SS who were massacring prisoners, it was the Americans too. But Rick Atkinson, a brilliant American historian, said, ‘It’ll be fine, people have become quite a bit more grown-up.’ That, thank God, has become the trend in history — it’s become far more internationalized.
“Everybody will kill prisoners in certain circumstances. Historians in the past have been far too squeamish about describing it from their own side. In many cases they will kill prisoners for almost administrative reasons, i.e., they’re short of the men to guard them. That’s totally inhumane, but warfare is inhumane.”
Beevor wants Roads to Freedom to be an antidote to the bombastic bias of so many war yarns. “It’s always tended to be so parochial, people just tend to write about their own country,” he says. “So one hopes that seeing it from different viewpoints does open people’s eyes.”