How a bunch of WWII misfits and outcasts created Britain’s SAS

Rogue Heroes ★★★★

SBS, Wednesday, 9.30pm

Most period shows take great care with their song selection, knowing that the right tune can fix both the era and mood. Rogue Heroes is the exception. It’s 1941, World War II is underway, and a British military contest is crossing the contested North African desert. The soundtrack? AC/DC’s If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It), a 1979 masterclass in electric guitar interplay topped by Bon Scott’s larrikin howl. Forget the stiff upper lip, this irreverent biopic about the birth of Britain’s Special Air Service suggests, start headbanging.

Based on the 2017 non-fiction book by Ben Macintyre, who also provided the source material for BritBox’s recent espionage drama A Spy Among Friends, Rogue Heroes is a revisionist war tale. It’s in thrall to the anti-authority misfits and violent outcasts who raged against the British military machine until they were given their own unit. Considered a helpful decoy more than an offensive weapon against the Italian and German forces pushing towards Cairo and the vital Suez Canal, the nascent SAS helped change the course of the campaign with unconventional tactics and a hunger for combat verging on the suicidal.

Alfie Allen, Connor Swindells and Jack O’Connell in Rogue Heroes, an irreverent biopic about Britain’s Special Air ServiceCredit:BBC

“Insane, in jail, in despair,” is the shopping list of recruits, and the three historic protagonists cover those bases. David Stirling (Connor Swindells) is a boozy son of the British establishment who can’t handle the stoic mindset and incompetent planning; Paddy Mayne (Jack O’Connell) is an Irish hellion with a hair-trigger temper and a love of poetry; Jock Lewes (Alfie Allen) is a military martinet who sees war as a kind of absurd test – “your mother is not watching,” he tells his soldiers before a bloody night raid.

The creator of this six-episode BBC series, Steven Knight, is an old hand at hard-nut monologues and go-to-hell confrontations: he put together Peaky Blinders. His trio of officers, who soon put aside parachute operations for crossing the desert in long-range jeeps to attack enemy supply lines, have a cinematic charm. The actors lap up every line. Swindells, who should be getting a James Bond audition after this, is an aristocratic rebel, while the supremely gifted O’Connell plays a self-sabotaging rebel who finally has a cause.

It’s breezy, bloody, and perpetually impertinent. It’s definitely not your Dad’s Army. Does it glorify war? To a degree, although as the obligatory audition scene for potential recruits makes clear, their mission is to defeat fascism. And beneath the deadpan exchanges there’s a casual but telling study of how some people only make sense – to themselves and others – in the most extreme of circumstances. This squad’s attacking philosophy is basically fast and furious: hoon through the enemy base and blast away. The bond between Stirling and Mayne begins likewise, but it slowly deepens.

Knight and director Tom Shankland have great fun with the World War II tropes. Numerous meetings take place in Cairo nightclubs filled with showgirls and spies, most notably Dominic West as a British operative with a taste for disinformation and drag plus Sofia Boutella as his impossibly glamourous Free French counterpart. The show’s calling card is that most of this is supposedly historically accurate. “Deception is a war against reality,” West’s Dudley Clarke notes, which makes Rogue Heroes a wildly entertaining con job.

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