Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more
News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.
There is something bedraggled about SAS Rogue Heroes, a series about the lads who founded the Special Air Service division during the Second World War, and whose title is distractingly reminiscent of Channel 4’s similarly unreconstructed reality TV series SAS : Who Dares Wins (2015-). Here, as there, a chilling larkiness obtains, an unexamined aren’t-we-having-fun machismo.
The show focuses on the camaraderie and rivalries between the founder members of the squadron as they set up the regiment and, in their own unruly fashion, go after Axis air forces stationed in North Africa. At the outset, David Stirling (Connor Swindells), an insane posho and their de facto leader, recruits the pragmatic and steady Jock Lewes (Alfie Allen) and the mercurial Paddy Mayne (Jack O’Connell) before assembling a motley crew of good old boys, unfailingly presented to viewers in pixelated freeze-frame.
That increasingly hoary device, lifted from the school of Tarantino and intended to render the swagger of these characters ‘iconic’, is one of several stylistic affectations that start to grate as the programme goes on. Another is the flippancy of the dialogue, relying on a surfeit of juvenile swearing and quipping, together with a pert edit telegraphing the cheery insouciance of proceedings against (paradoxically!) the backdrop of war. The wit on display here is hardly Catch-22.
Another irksome element of style is the programme’s overuse of ironic music cues, particularly in its embrace of ahistorical hard rock to soundtrack a series of increasingly wearying look-at-them-go jeep excursions in the (admittedly striking in widescreen) desert. One such stretch features ‘Out in the Middle East’ by George Formby, followed by ‘Slow Ride’ by Foghat, ‘I Fought the Law’ by the Clash, and, finally, ‘Wheels of Steel’ by Saxon capping off twelve minutes with barely any respite. It starts to feel desperate, showing up a lack of meat in a narrative stretched thinly over six episodes.
The show’s focus on madcap daredevilry (which is not even always pulled off with aplomb; for an expensive programme, several nighttime action set-pieces are criminally underlit) comes at the expense of the human. Swindells, with cut-glass RP and a faint air of Trevor Howard, is charismatic as Stirling, but the character has little depth. Jack O’Connell, by far the best actor of the bunch, is soulful as Mayne, and his ambiguous friendship with fellow soldier Eoin McGonigal is finely performed, but the show gives him precious little downtime. The occasional bit of roustabout charm, and largely top-notch production values, can’t save SAS Rogue Heroes from falling flat.
► SAS Rogue Heroes is available to view on BBC iPlayer now .