Ypres. A city in Belgium. It’s pronounced “ee-pruh”, but in the parlance of the British Army in World War I, called “Wipers.” And in this shell-frayed pocket of the great, muddy overcoat of WWI, an extraordinary thing took place.
“The Wipers Times” tells the remarkable true story of Captain Fred Roberts and his British detachment, who find a printing press inside the scarred shell of a Ypres building in 1916. Over the remaining years of the war, they produce a regular satirical newspaper written, typeset, printed and distributed in the heart of trench warfare on the Western Front.
Facing down the horrors of war with that special brand of bleak, starchy British humor, the paper publishes articles, doggerel, song lyrics, and even heartfelt trench poetry, all in a bid to give strength and support to those who need it most. Needless to say, their broadsides at Army leadership raise the ire of top brass, and the ‘offices’ of the paper are forced to traipse from site to site in France as the war progresses (or stalls, as you will).
Screenwriters Ian Hislop and Nick Newman split the film into two distinct threads—one is the straightforward narrative of the events and people surrounding the paper, and the other is a gray-toned series of broad, darkly comic music hall-style sketches, acting out the content of the satirical articles. Need a taxi, soldier? Look for the ones with the red crosses painted on the sides. Are you suffering from optimism? Here’s our cure for that malady.
This inventive choice is a little jarring at first (purposely) but works surprisingly well, and cleverly jumps that particular barrier of text without seeming ham-fisted or insensitive. Director Andy de Emmory finds the right balance of sentiment and gallows humor in these scenes, with a dash of the nightmarish as well. Even a throwaway scatological joke about the paper’s name rings true.
The cast is uniformly solid, with Ben Chaplin in fine form as Roberts, and Julian Rhind-Tutt as his wry second in command, Pearson. The great Michael Palin plays a sympathetic general who encourages Roberts in his efforts to bolster morale.
It is an unconscious expectation, I think, that anymore a war movie will be partly an endurance test for its audience—unflinchingly grim and violent. Call it the “Saving Private Ryan” effect. War is hell, right? But that’s not the only truth.
“The Wipers Times” is an unpretentious, bloodless war movie, humble but touching and funny, as well. For Roberts, the truth was how he and his fellow ‘reporters’ kept their humanity, and faced the impossible by making a brave, defiant joke out of it.
The DVD of the “The Wipers Times” is presented in a satisfying transfer, in widescreen. The two contrasting visual tones are clear and distinct. There is an option for English SDH subtitles.
The audio track is a generally good 2.0 Stereo. The ever-present thuds of distant shelling are kept appropriately distant.
There are no extras with this disc.
Smart and well-acted, with a healthy streak of inventive dark humor, “The Wipers Times” finds a new true story of World War I, and tells that story on its own terms.