On 14 May 2004, 24-year-old Lance Corporal Brian Wood was leading a patrol in a Warrior armoured vehicle near Al-Amarah in southern Iraq, when he got a call for help. A nearby unit of Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders had come under attack near a checkpoint called Danny Boy and, with two men wounded, called for reinforcements. Wood and his fellow soldiers from the Princess Of Wales’ Royal Regiment rushed to help the Argylls, jumping out of their vehicle when they reached the site of the battle and charging the enemy under cover of fire from the Warrior’s 30mm cannon and chain gun. When the dust settled, almost 30 fighters from the Mahdi Army, an Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia, were dead, with no British fatalities. That none of Wood’s men had been killed was almost astounding; they had crossed over 400 metres of “dead ground”, wasteland crisscrossed by trenches and berms, in the first British bayonet charge since the Falklands War.
It was surely only a matter of time, then, before someone decided to dramatise the day’s events. “You’re in this pressure cooker, 24/7, and then shit pops off,” is how Anthony Boyle explains the mindset on the ground. “You can’t second-guess yourself and you’re having to make life-altering decisions in milliseconds.” Boyle should know – the Irish actor, perhaps best known for playing Scorpius Malfoy in Harry Potter And The Cursed Child on Broadway, plays Wood in a new BBC film, Danny Boy, which follows what became known as the Battle Of Danny Boy and its aftermath.
But that’s only half of it. While the all-action sequences of Danny Boy are reminiscent of the explosive hand-to-hand trench-clearing of something like 1917 or Saving Private Ryan, a large swath of the film is closer in tone to a family drama or a legal procedural, because while Wood was initially decorated for his actions in Iraq – he was awarded the Military Cross by the Queen as one of ten medals awarded after Danny Boy – aspersions were quickly cast on his battlefield conduct.
Upon their return from Iraq, Wood and his fellow soldiers were accused of war crimes by a human rights lawyer and campaigner named Phil Shiner – here played by a bleached-blond Toby Jones – in what would eventually develop into the Al-Sweady Inquiry into alleged human rights abuses by British troops in Iraq. Irregularities in the action stood out, including whether the captured Iraqi fighters were wearing shoes when apprehended and why the bodies of dead fighters were loaded into vehicles and taken back to a British base for identification. Shiner claimed to have uncovered testimony from locals that, after the battle, Mahdi Army fighters had been tortured and mistreated. Indeed, whether they were even fighters at all was up for debate – in that rural area of Iraq, Shiner argued, it was the norm for farmers to carry Kalashnikovs in self-defence. Wood and his comrades, he contended, had killed Iraqi peasants and had been decorated for it.
The drama of Danny Boy all hangs on this question accountability in war, of heroism. Was Wood a hero who saved the lives of his fellow soldiers or a man who mistreated and shot dead prisoners of war? Or both?
Boyle didn’t initially realise he was reading a true story when he first picked up the script; instead, he found he “couldn't turn the pages quickly enough” to discover whether Brian Wood was guilty or not. Once he knew that Wood was a real person, and still very much alive and available to talk to, Boyle was reluctant to meet him – “I wanted to create a Brian from the script, as opposed to Brian from real life” – but he eventually agreed to a 20-minute chat, to ask some technical questions about being in a war zone. They ended up talking for seven hours. “Nothing was off limits. He was really open.” Keen to avoid a breach of confidence over a deeply personal story, Boyle won’t repeat what Wood told him about the battle of Danny Boy, other than it “kind of changed the way I look at the world a bit”. And Wood later came onto set to advise the crew on what it was like coming under fire. “It was invaluable to have someone who was actually there,” says Boyle, “to say, ‘This is how you’re feeling. This is what’s happening in this moment.’”
Shooting a modern war film is a foray into new territory for Boyle, who until now has been best known for playing Scorpius Malfoy in Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, first at the Palace Theatre in London’s West End and then on Broadway. Over an acclaimed run from 2016-17 (“Fans should feel satisfied by this first Harry Potter fix for a few years” was GQ’s verdict on the script at the time), a berobed Boyle trod the boards as Scorpius, the villainous Draco Malfoy’s – gasp – nerdy, retiring son, in a performance that secured one of the play’s record-breaking nine Olivier Awards. On transferring the show to New York City, it earned him a Tony nomination.
Boyle turns 27 next month and, naturally, his award-winning role as Scorpius is his defining part so far, but those who didn’t shell out for tickets to the world’s most in-demand play might instead recognise him from the 2019 biopic Tolkien; Boyle played a young JRR Tolkien’s closest schoolfriend, Geoffrey Bache Smith, who was killed at the Somme. He also appeared in HBO’s six-part miniseries adaptation of The Plot Against America last year, as Alvin, a rebellious Jewish socialist who serves in the Canadian military during the Second World War, to get out of Charles Lindbergh’s deeply anti-Semitic America. Next, he’s pulling the combat boots back on, to film a new miniseries called Masters Of The Air. Produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, the series follows the aircrews of the “Mighty Eighth”, the US Air Force wing that flew in the European theatre of the Second World War. Boyle has just completed “a three-week boot camp” with Captain Dale Dye, the author, actor and longtime military advisor on Hanks’ various war films including Saving Private Ryan, and is, by his own admission, somewhat exhausted. But, he says, “the scripts are phenomenal”.
So, two TV series set against the backdrop of the Second World War, a film that ends in the trenches of France in 1916 and now another about a soldier in the Iraq War. What is it, exactly, that draws Boyle to that sort of material? “I’m interested in drama,” he says. “And when you read scripts, it seems to me there’s so much drama involved in war. It’s so mammoth. It’s not a Noël Coward, sitting there drinking tea and someone’s being a bit bitchy. It’s real, heavy. There are consequences.”
If there was a major body of cinema that flowed out of the Vietnam War in the late 1970s and early 1980s, then the last decade has seen the growth of an Iraq War canon. Following on from the likes of American Sniper, The Hurt Locker and Green Zone, this summer’s Cherry cast Tom Holland as a veteran who returns from his tour of duty with PTSD, eventually getting hooked on opiates and embarking on a spree of bank robberies. More overtly political films, from Vice to Official Secrets and Last Flag Flying, have addressed the deeply flawed rationale behind the invasion and the subsequent waste of Coalition and Iraqi life. And Danny Boy too highlights some of the futility of the West’s “forever wars”. As Boyle puts it, the Iraq War is “this cloud that’s hung over British politics for years”.
Wood has trouble reintegrating when he returns to his young wife and son in England. He has questions about why he’s being interrogated by higher-ups about his actions, which he maintains were moral and justified. He has nightmares about the battle and he is frustrated by the question over why two Iraqi fighters, when they had the drop on him on the battlefield, chose not to kill him. “As a soldier, your job is to follow orders,” Boyle explains. “You’ve got to be ready to die. Politics doesn’t come into it. If you second-guess [yourself] and lose milliseconds, then you could die.” Yet, as he is forced in interviews and inquiries to relive the battle of Danny Boy over and over again, Wood begins to lose sight of the clarity of action that is required to be a good soldier.
There’s a historical parallel with Danny Boy that is difficult to avoid touching on for any film about alleged war crimes committed by British troops. From Bloody Sunday to the shootings of three IRA members by the SAS in Gibraltar in 1988 to this week’s Ballymurphy Inquest into the killing of ten people in Northern Ireland in 1971, there are any number of flash points from the Troubles that one might expect to loom large in such a fraught context. But Boyle, who was born in Belfast and raised Catholic near the Falls Road, demurs. He’s not aware of Johnny Mercer’s furious crusade against the retroactive prosecution of British troops in Northern Ireland. Nor did he consider the parallels with the Troubles at any point during shooting. “I wanted to look at it with completely fresh eyes. I think this is such a singular thing, that I was more interested in playing the man.” It never came up in discussion with anyone at home that he was playing a British soldier accused of shooting innocent people? “No.”
Nonetheless, there is one aspect of Boyle’s background that informed his understanding of what Brian Wood went through. “When I was younger, I was very religious. We were brought up in a very Catholic household and I always think of random quotes from the Bible. There’s a great quote: ‘The sins of the Father shall be visited upon the son.’ And the whole way through Danny Boy I kept thinking of that.”
Wood comes from a proud family line of 300 years of soldiering and, throughout the film, his father, a gruff Scottish veteran, struggles to articulate his support for Wood, preferring instead to rage against the army brass leading the inquiry into the allegations against his son. Likewise, Wood finds it difficult to explain to his own young son that, yes, he has killed people, but, no, he’s not a murderer. The pressure on both men to be exemplary soldiers is immense. “It’s a real sort of ‘We’ve got to be the tip of the bayonet, here,’” says Boyle. “‘This is what we do. This is manhood. This is fatherhood.’ It's like a Greek tragedy.”
Boyle says he’s interested to see the response to Danny Boy, not least whether viewers assume Wood’s guilt or innocence in the inquest (which is only revealed emphatically at the end of the film). “My view on it is, if you kill a civilian you should go to jail. One hundred per cent. But when it goes out, I’ll be interested to see different people’s reactions, how different people receive it.” As Brian Wood would well know, Boyle observes, “It takes half a second – less – to pull a trigger. That can change your world.”
Danny Boy is on BBC Two on Wednesday 12 May at 9pm.
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