Armageddon – The Somme

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 242nd installment in the series. 

July 1, 1916: Armageddon – The Somme 

It was the worst day in British history as measured in bloodshed, with 57,470 total casualties and 19,240 dead, mostly drawn from the cream of the patriotic British middle and working classes. An unparalleled disaster, the first day of the Somme and the 140 days of horror that followed live on in Britain’s collective psyche to this day, remembered – some argue unfairly – as the climactic agony of a generation of young men betrayed by an intellectually bankrupt elite unworthy of their devotion.

Needless to say, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Following six months of planning and preparation, the combined Anglo-French attack on both sides of the River Somme on July 1, 1916 was supposed to literally be a walkover, an annihilating blow that would shatter the German front in northern France and force the neighboring German armies to retreat, reopening the war of movement and setting the stage for final Allied victory. 

Instead it was Armageddon. 

Plan and Reality 

The German defenses at the Somme were formidable to say the least, beginning with a first line complex, about 200 yards deep, of three trenches connected by communications trenches, protected by huge fields of barbed wire and studded with strongholds or “redoubts” – self-contained mini-fortresses of concrete and earthworks protecting machine gun nests. The Germans had also constructed a second line defense several thousand yards behind the first lie, situated on the far side of a chain of low hills and therefore invisible from the Allied trenches, and were working on a third line defense located a similar distance behind that. 

Thanks to aerial reconnaissance the Allies had been able to create detailed maps of the German defenses, and the plan to penetrate them drawn up by British Expeditionary Force commander Douglas Haig and French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre looked plausible, on paper at least. After a huge bombardment by massed artillery to break up barbed wire and flatten the German trenches, and the explosion of 19 huge mines to destroy the redoubts, British and French infantry would advance along a 25,000-yard front on both sides of the River Somme behind a “creeping barrage” of artillery fire, with the guns gradually raising their elevation to create a moving wall of explosions to protect them from German counterattacks.

Most of the burden of fighting at the Somme would fall on the British Fourth Army, as the planned French contribution was scaled down radically because of the need to defend Verdun; after the Fourth Army pierced the German defenses, the new British Reserve Army (later Fifth Army) would enter the fray to exploit the breakthrough, advancing northeast along the road connecting Albert to Bapaume before pivoting north to roll up the German defenses west of Cambrai. Threatened on their flanks, the German armies would have no choice but to retreat in disarray, creating an opening for all the Allied armies to attack and expel them from France and Belgium.

Haig and Fourth Army commander Henry Rawlinson were so confident about the artillery’s ability to wipe out German defenses that British soldiers went “over the top” with orders to advance across “No Man’s Land” at a walking pace and in close order, just a few yards apart. They were also weighed down by over 60 pounds of ammunition, food, tools, and other supplies, reflecting the expectation that they would be operating for at least several days deep behind the German lines, away from supply depots. Albert Andrews, a private in the 30th Division, listed their kit: 

I will tell here what I carried: rifle and bayonet with a pair of wire cutters attached; a shovel fastened on my back; pack containing two days’ rations, oil sheet, cardigan, jacket and mess tin; haversack containing one day’s iron rations and two Mills bombs; 150 rounds of ammunition; two extra bandoliers containing 60 rounds each, one over each shoulder; a bag of ten bombs [grenades]. 

However the German defenses were even more formidable than anyone suspected. Invisible from the air, the Germans had constructed bunkers up to 40 feet deep, reinforced with concrete and sturdy wood beams, which provided shelter for tens of thousands of German troops during the unrelenting weeklong bombardment that began on June 24. Furthermore bad weather prevented British planes from assessing damage to the German second line and directing artillery fire to German targets ahead of the advancing infantry, including new stretches of barbed wire hurriedly laid out in the night. Finally, Rawlinson’s relaxed attitude towards command, giving officers on the ground considerable leeway to adjust tactics as they saw fit, meant many ordered the creeping barrage to jump over the German first line in the optimistic belief it had already been obliterated. 

“A Hurricane of Fire” 

The British attack on the morning of July 1, 1916 began with a final bombardment that stunned observers with its fury, reinforcing the general impression that no defenders could possibly be left alive in the first German line. Geoffrey Malins, a British photographer documenting the war in photos and film, recalled the blistering fusillade: 

When I reached the section where I judged it best to fit up my camera, I gently peeped over the parapet. What a sight. Never in my life had I seen such a hurricane of fire. It was inconceivable that any living thing could exist anywhere near it. The shells were coming over so fast and furious that it seemed as if they must be touching each other on their journey through the air. 

At first glance the shelling appeared to have accomplished one of its main tasks by breaking up the new barbed wire defenses, according to Frederick Palmer, American correspondent, who described the scene near Beaumont-Hamel: “All the barbed-wire entanglements in front of the first-line trenches appeared to be cut, mangled, twisted into balls, beaten back into the earth and exhumed again, leaving only a welt of crater-spotted ground in front of the chalky contour of the first-line trenches which had been mashed and crushed out of shape.” However, as the British infantry soon discovered, in many places the explosions had simply lifted the barbed wire into the air and dropped it down again in new positions, with stretches of broken wire overlapping to create an equally impenetrable barrier. 

As one hundred thousand soldiers waited to go “over the top,” each man was left alone with his thoughts. In many cases, following a week of anxious inactivity they were simply impatient for the big moment to arrive. Edward Liveing, a British soldier in the London Regiment of the 56th Division, recalled the final minutes as the British guns pounded the German lines and the German batteries responded in kind: 

I have often tried to call to memory the intellectual, mental and nervous activity through which I passed during that hour of hellish bombardment and counter-bombardment, that last hour before we leapt out of our trenches into No Man’s Land… I had an excessive desire for the time to come when I could go ‘over the top,’ when I should be free at last from the noise of the bombardment, free from the prison of my trench, free to walk across that patch of No Man’s Land and opposing trenches till I got to my objective, or, if I did not go that far, to have my fate decided for better or for worse. I experienced, too, moments of intense fear during close bombardment. I felt that if I was blown up it would be the end of all things so far as I was concerned. The idea of after-life seemed ridiculous in the presence of such frightful destructive force. 

The British also unleashed poison gas and clouds of white smoke to serve as a screen for the advancing infantry (below). Lieutenant Adrian Consett Stephen described the British gas attack in a letter home, as well as his first ominous inkling that perhaps all was not going as planned:

For a mile stretching away from me, the trench was belching forth dense columns of white, greenish, and orange smoke. It rose curling and twisting, blotting everything from view, and then swept, a solid rampart, over the German lines. For more than an hour this continued, and I could see nothing. Sometimes the smoke was streaked with a scarlet star as a shell burst among it… It seemed impossible that men could withstand this awful onslaught… And yet a machine gun played steadily all the time from the German front line.

Finally, the huge mines under the German redoubts went up with an infernal power that reminded many observers of volcanoes erupting, the shockwaves knocking down men standing on the other side of No Man’s Land while debris was lofted almost a mile into the air, sometimes taking several minutes to descend. One aerial observer, second lieutenant Cecil Lewis, described seeing (and feeling) the largest mine – the “Lochnagar mine” under the “Schwaben Redoubt,” actually two separate mines loaded with a stupefying 60,000 pounds of high explosive – go up from a plane at 7:28 a.m. (below, an aerial view of the Lochnagar crater today): 

At Boisselle the earth heaved and flashed, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up in the sky. There was an ear-splitting roar drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air. The earth column rose higher and higher to almost 4,000 feet (1,200 m). There it hung, or seemed to hang, for a moment in the air, like the silhouette of some great cypress tree, then fell away in a widening cone of dust and debris. A moment later came the second mine. Again the roar, the upflung machine, the strange gaunt silhouette invading the sky. Then the dust cleared and we saw the two white eyes of the craters. The barrage had lifted to the second-line trenches, the infantry were over the top, the attack had begun.

Elsewhere a photographer was able to capture a remarkable photo of the British mine beneath the German “Hawthorn Redoubt” as it detonated, sending up 45,000 pounds of ammonal high explosive and taking hundreds of German soldiers with it (below; the photographer was about half a mile away, and the soldier barely visible by the trees in the foreground provides a sense of scale). 

The infantry assault began at 7:30 a.m. with a diversionary attack to the north by the 46th and 56th Divisions of the neighboring British Third Army against a small German salient at Gommecourt, and here the British suffered their first setback, for all the reasons that would soon become apparent all along the front: the artillery preparation had been inadequate, the Germans were able to patch the barbed wire in many places, and the lack of aerial observation made it almost impossible to know whether any progress was being made. Even worse, the failure of the 46th Division to advance doomed the effort by the 56th Division in the other arm of the “pincer.” As a result barely any of the British troops reached the German front line near Gommecourt, and those who did were soon forced out by German counterattacks. 

This story would repeat itself, again and again, up and down the battlefield of the Somme. All along the front the the Germans emerged, rattled by the bombardment but largely unscathed, from their deep dugouts and quickly took up defensive positions in shell holes, along the lips of the mine craters, and in small stretches of trench that remained usable after the shelling. One German soldier, Matthaus Gerster, recalled the adrenaline-charged experience:

At 7:30 a.m. the hurricane of shells ceased as suddenly as it had begun. Our men at once clambered up the steep shafts leading from the dug-outs to daylight and ran singly or in groups to the nearest shell craters. The machine guns were pulled out of the dug-outs and hurriedly placed in position, their crews dragging the heavy ammunition boxes up the steps and out to the guns. A rough firing line was thus rapidly established… A few minutes later, when the leading British line was within one hundred yards, the rattle of machine guns and rifle fire broke out from along the whole line of craters. Some fired kneeling so as to get a better target over the broken ground, while others in the excitement of the moment, stood up regardless of their own safety to fire into the crowd of men in front of them. Red rockets sped up into the blue sky as a signal to the artillery, and immediately afterwards a mass of shells from the German batteries in rear tore through the air and burst among the advancing lines. Whole sections seemed to fall, and the rear formations, moving in closer order, quickly scattered. The advance rapidly crumbled under this hail of shell and bullets. All along the line men could be seen throwing their arms into the air and collapsing, never to move again. Badly wounded rolled about in their agony, and others less severely injured crawled to the nearest shell-hole for shelter. 

From the village of Serre to Beaumont-Hamel, after the explosion of the Hawthorn Redoubt mine mentioned above, the British 4th, 29th, and 31st Divisions had to advance across a low basin that made them perfect targets for German artillery and machine guns. Even worse, the officers had accelerated the creeping barrage on the assumption the German frontline was destroyed – again, unaware that the enemy’s deep dugouts had survived (below, wire entanglements at Beaumont-Hamel). 

Now a new threat was rapidly becoming apparent: because the British were trying to advance along such a broad front, a failure by any division to progress left its neighbors exposed to flanking fire from the Germans and counterattacks from neighboring German trenches – so even where the British succeeded in breaking into the German first line, they found themselves isolated in narrow corridors surrounded by the enemy, and were forced to retreat anyway. This proved to be the case for the 36th Division, which advanced north of the village Thiepval but then abandoned its gains, including the key Schwaben Redoubt (or what was left of it), under withering fire when the adjacent 32nd Division failed to advance. 

And still more British troops poured forward. Edward Liveing described seeing the second wave advance to meet its fate:

The scene that met my eyes as I stood on the parapet of our trench for that one second is almost indescribable. Just in front the ground was pitted by innumerable shell-holes. More holes opened suddenly every now and then. Here and there a few bodies lay about. Farther away, before our front line and in No Man's Land, lay more. In the smoke one could distinguish the second line advancing. One man after another fell down in a seemingly natural manner, and the wave melted away. In the background, where ran the remains of the German lines and wire, there was a mass of smoke, the red of the shrapnel bursting amid it. 

Soon it would be Liveing’s turn to plunge into the maelstrom, where he discovered it was almost impossible to keep track of his men amid the chaos:

As I advanced, I felt as if I was in a dream, but I had all my wits about me. We had been told to walk. Our boys, however, rushed forward with splendid impetuosity to help their comrades and smash the German resistance in the front line… I kept up a fast walking pace and tried to keep the line together. This was impossible. When we had jumped clear of the remains of our front line trench, my platoon slowly disappeared through the line stretching out. 

As the troops in subsequent lines advanced, they were greeted by the horrifying sights of No Man’s Land, where they found their own comrades lying dead and wounded by the thousands, and faced the same fate themselves, at the hands of the same German machine gunners and artillery crews. Liveing recalled his own experience, culminating in a wound that – like tens of thousands of others that day – forced him to retreat back across No Man’s Land under heavy fire: 

We were dropping into a slight valley. The shell-holes were less few, but bodies lay all over the ground, and a terrible groaning arose from all sides. At one time we seemed to be advancing in little groups. I was at the head of one for a moment or two, only to realise shortly afterwards that I was alone… I turned round again and advanced to a gap in the German wire. There was a pile of our wounded here on the German parapet… Suddenly I cursed. I had been scalded in the left hip. A shell, I thought, had blown up in a water-logged crump-hole and sprayed me with boiling water. Letting go of my rifle, I dropped forward full length on the ground. My hip began to smart unpleasantly, and I felt a curious warmth stealing down my left leg. I thought it was the boiling water that had scalded me. Certainly my breeches looked as if they were saturated with water. I did not know that they were saturated with blood… I looked around to see what was happening. In front lay some wounded; on either side of them stakes and shreds of barbed wire twisted into weird contortions by the explosions of our trench-mortar bombs. Beyond this nothing but smoke, interspersed with the red of bursting bombs and shrapnel.

Back on the German side, Gerster described the seemingly endless British attacks, each one ending in disaster:

The extended lines, though badly shaken and with many gaps, now came on all the faster. Instead of a leisurely walk they covered the ground in short rushes at the double. Within a few minutes the leading troops had reached within a stone’s throw of our front trench, and while some of us continued to fire at point-blank range, others threw hand grenades among them. The British bombers [grenade throwers] answered back, while the infantry rushed forward with fixed bayonets. The noise of battle became indescribable… Again and again the extended lines of British infantry broke against the German defence like waves against a cliff, only to be beaten back. 

Ironically the French Sixth Army, which had been assigned a supporting role in the attack because of the manpower requirements at Verdun, made much more progress to the south of the Somme, led by colonial troops from North Africa in the 1st Moroccan Division and 2nd, 3rd, and 16th Colonial Divisions. The neighboring British divisions, at the southernmost end of the British line, also fared better in their attacks near Montauban, Fricourt, and Mametz Woods. 

The Allied success in the southern half of the battlefield was due in part to hills that provided better observation points and shelter for artillery and the use of a larger number of smaller mines to disrupt longer stretches of the German trenches. These factors meant the British and French could clear German artillery more effectively before the infantry attacked, while the continuing bombardment forced the German infantry to remain in their dugouts longer before coming to the surface – giving the attackers crucial extra moments to advance. 

However the British and French still failed to penetrate to the German second line of defenses further east, meaning nowhere along the front had the Allies achieved their hoped-for breakthrough. Furthermore their advances on the southern half of the front merely made it even more urgent for the British divisions north of the Somme to catch up in order to allow the entire operation to move forward, leading to more disastrous assaults in the days to come. 

All along the front, July 1, 1916 ended in nightmarish scenes of death and destruction, with fighting continuing sporadically where Allied or German troops held out in isolated strongholds. Paul Maze, a Frenchman serving with the British Army as a translator, described the night of July 1: 

I went at night to Albert, where I knew that from some high ground I could look into La Boisselle and a wide stretch of the battle-ground. The line kept emerging from the darkness, illuminated by brilliant lights from a constant succession of soaring rockets, bursting and spreading into vivid colours, momentarily revealing quivering patches of the deep shade beyond. Our men were then bombing the craters in front of La Boisselle. Occasionally the light showed up little figures crawling over broken ground. Behind me the town of Albert was trembling with the shelling, as flashes from the guns played hide-and-seek through the beams of its gaping roofs and intermittently lit up as in daylight a white streak of the Albert-Bapaume road… Ambulances were taking away the wounded from the casualty clearing-station in Albert. Lorries were packed with the lighter casualties who waited their turn in big groups, all labeled with the nature of their wounds. Roads were crammed with marching troops and lorries. Dust was rising everywhere. Lines of cavalry horses, contentedly munching hay, covered the rolling plains as far as Amiens, hidden in the darkness. 

After a day of consolidation and (relatively) small-scale combat on July 2, the British returned to the attack on July 3, determined to push forward in the north and set the stage for the assault on the German second line, allowing the British Reserve Army to swing into action as planned. This time, unfortunately, the attacks near Ovillers and Thiepval went forward with little or no coordination, as officers mounted local attacks according to their own hastily improvised strategies. Palmer, the war correspondent, saw one of the attacks: 

The battle was not general; it raged at certain points where the Germans had anchored themselves after some recovery from the staggering blow of the first day. Beyond Fricourt the British artillery was making a crushing concentration on a clump of woods. This seemed to be the hottest place of all. I would watch it. Nothing except the blanket of shell-smoke hanging over the trees was visible for a time, unless you counted figures some distance away moving about in a sort of detached pantomime. Then a line of British infantry seemed to rise out of the pile of the carpet and I could see them moving with a drill-ground steadiness toward the edge of the woods, only to be lost to the eye in a fold of the carpet or in a changed background.

Further south Maze witnessed the continued fighting around the village of La Boisselle, which was quickly being reduced to a heap of rubble:

Through a gap between two sandbags I was shown the village, where smoke was drifting across skeletons of trees on a torn-up mound. An uneven line of sandbags, stretching across piles of bricks and remnants of houses, faced our front trench. The enemy was there, a few yards away. His presence, so near and yet unseen, made upon me an uncanny impression. The ground between our trench and the ruins beyond was merely a stretch of craters and burnt-up grass broken up by tangled wire… The dead were lying there in all conceivable attitudes, rotting in the sun. A veil of fumes from lachrymatory shells was rolling along the ground… with the heat the smell had become very trying.

Incredibly conditions were about to become even more trying, as nature turned against both attackers and defenders with the arrival of unexpected summer thunderstorms, which – once again – turned the battlefield into a quagmire and flooded trenches. Many men commented on the unusually sticky nature of the Somme mud, with its combination of clay, dust, and chalk ground up by entrenching tools and artillery. Maze described the scene as the heavens opened above them: 

The rain, falling down the shiny slopes, formed streams everywhere. Steam rose from the hot ground… the Somme dust had turned everything into liquid mud; lorries rushed along plastering everybody with it. Drenched infantry and horse-lines were out in the open – everything now looked miserable. During the next three days the rain hardly ceased. Conditions became appalling… The trenches had now crumbled down with the rain, and water rushing down the slopes had invaded every communication-trench. The mud was a soft yellow, sticky paste that clung to one’s boots and had to be kicked away at every step. 

The mud would be a perpetual fixture of the Somme, especially once summer gave way to autumn. Hugh Knyvett, an Australian who fought at the Somme some time later, portrayed it as a force of nature all its own: 

How we cursed that mud! We cursed it sleeping, we cursed it waking, we cursed it riding, we cursed it walking. We ate it and cursed; we drank it and cursed; we swallowed it and spat it; we snuffed it and wept it; it filled our nails and our ears; it caked and lined our clothing; we wallowed in it, we waded through it, we swam in it, and splashed it about – it stuck our helmets to our hair, it plastered our wounds, and there were men drowned in it. 

And still the fighting went on. On July 7, 1916 Rawlinson ordered another round of attacks on the center near Ovillers, Mametz Wood, and Contalmaison – but once again there was virtually no coordination between the commanders on the ground, leaving individual units to advance with their flanks unprotected, and over the next six days modest victories were paid for with extravagant amounts of blood. Nature also paid a heavy price, according to Private Robert Lord Crawford, who described a scene near Contalmaison in his diary entry on July 7, 1916: 

What a scene of desolation in this area of battle. One stumbles across a corpse distended by gangrene, half hidden by luxuriant flowers, and then a few yards further on a patch of land from which every vestige of vegetation has been completely burned. What is marked on a map as a wood is in reality a seared row of skeleton trees. This is the most violent and wasteful of all the invasions of nature which a bombardment involves. 

Mametz Wood and Contalmaison finally fell to the British on July 12, setting the stage for the next big push on July 14, 1916. The Battle of the Somme was just beginning. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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© TM & DC Comics/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
19 Surprising Facts About The Dark Knight
© TM & DC Comics/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
© TM & DC Comics/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Christopher Nolan didn’t set out to make sequels. As the director of hit thrillers like Memento and Insomnia, his personal style never seemed to mesh with the idea of helming a mega-franchise. After reenvisioning the Caped Crusader with 2005’s Batman Begins, though, Nolan couldn’t stop thinking about how his version of Batman would respond to the introduction of The Joker. The result was The Dark Knight, a hyper-real exploration of how chaos shakes up the mission of the righteous, complete with huge stars, incredible stunts, and an Oscar-winning performance by the late Heath Ledger. To revisit this landmark movie, which was released 10 years ago, here are 19 fascinating facts about The Dark Knight.

1. IT HAS MANY COMIC BOOK INSPIRATIONS.

While it doesn’t adapt any one specific story to the screen, The Dark Knight did draw inspiration from several specific Batman stories in the pages of DC Comics. When researching and writing the film, director Christopher Nolan and his brother, co-writer Jonathan Nolan, specifically went back to The Joker’s very first appearance in 1940’s Batman #1 in search of how best to introduce the character. Co-writer David S. Goyer, himself a DC Comics contributor, also cites the classic stories The Long Halloween, The Dark Knight Returns, and The Killing Joke as keys to his research, with elements from each making their way into the film.

2. THE JOKER ALSO HAD DIVERSE INSPIRATIONS.

Heath Ledger in 'The Dark Knight' (2008)
© TM & DC Comics/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

In addition to classic Joker stories like The Killing Joke, Nolan and star Heath Ledger drew on a diverse array of influences both in and out of comics to craft the film’s version of the Clown Prince of Crime. Before attempting to write the character, the Nolan brothers revisited Fritz Lang’s classic film The Testament of Dr. Mabuse as a study in how to write supervillains. Visually, Nolan also specifically cited the work of painter Francis Bacon as a touchstone for Joker’s distorted view of the world.

As for Ledger, he famously locked himself away in a hotel room for weeks, experimenting with voices and mannerisms until he developed something he was satisfied with. Among his inspirations: Sex Pistols icons Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious and the anarchist character Alex from Stanley Kubrick’s classic film A Clockwork Orange.

3. NOLAN WAS INITIALLY RELUCTANT TO MAKE A SEQUEL.

The Dark Knight is the first Christopher Nolan film to be a sequel, and though Batman Begins ends with Gordon handing Batman the Joker card as a kind of setup for the next film, the director wasn't exactly determined to return to Gotham City. Nolan and Goyer had ideas for how a trilogy of films would happen, of course, but after Batman Begins hit big, Nolan instead went off to make magician drama The Prestige. Ultimately, the lure of telling a Joker story proved too enticing for Nolan to pass up, and he eventually re-teamed with Goyer to begin mapping out the story that would become The Dark Knight

“I didn’t have any intention of making a sequel to Batman Begins and I was quite surprised to find myself wanting to do it,” Nolan told Empire Magazine. “I just got caught up in the process of imagining how you would see a character like The Joker through the prism of what we did in the first film.”

4. HEATH LEDGER WAS THE FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY THE JOKER.

Though other stars like Adrien Brody expressed an interest in playing the film’s key villain, Heath Ledger was the only name on Nolan’s wish list.

“When I heard he was interested in the Joker, there was never any doubt. You could just see it in his eyes,” Nolan told Newsweek. “People were a little baffled by the choice, it's true, but I've never had such a simple decision as a director.” 

5. YES, HEATH LEDGER REALLY DID KEEP A JOKER DIARY.

Because of the actor’s untimely death in January 2008, at the age of just 28, Ledger's performance as The Joker has been somewhat mythologized by fans, so the idea that he kept a secret “Joker diary” while getting into character might sound apocryphal. In fact, Ledger really did make a diary while preparing to play the character. It included various clipped art (Alex from A Clockwork Orange figures heavily), stylized notes, and even lines from the script recopied in his own handwriting. In 2013, Ledger’s father Kim revealed the diary in a documentary, and noted that his son did immersive work like this for every role but “really took it up a notch” for The Joker.

6. MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL WASN’T THE ONLY ACTRESS CONSIDERED FOR RACHEL DAWES.

For the role of Bruce Wayne’s childhood friend and current Gotham City assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes, Nolan had to look for a replacement. Katie Holmes played the role in 2005’s Batman Begins, but opted out of the sequel ostensibly so she could act in the comedy Mad Money. So Nolan went in search of other actresses and ultimately decided on Maggie Gyllenhaal for the role. Gyllenhaal was the final choice, but she wasn’t the only one. Other actresses up for the role included Rachel McAdams and Emily Blunt.

7. GYLLENHAAL TOOK THE ROLE BASED ON NOLAN’S PRESENCE ALONE.

For many actors, the prospect of starring in a sequel to a hit film is a major draw. For others, the prospect of finally being a part of a Batman film would do the trick. For Gyllenhaal, who stepped in as Rachel Dawes, there was only one key reason to say yes: Christopher Nolan.

“When Chris approached me about the film, it was almost incidental that it was about Batman,” Gyllenhaal said. “I was lured into becoming intrigued by the character through the process of making the movie. From the very beginning, Chris was so interesting and engaging—and so interested in me and my ideas about Rachel—that I wanted to be a part of it.”

8. AARON ECKHART WASN’T THE ONLY STAR CONSIDERED FOR HARVEY DENT.

Though The Dark Knight is unquestionably a Batman movie, Nolan and company didn’t consider the Caped Crusader to be the film’s main character.

“Bruce Wayne was the protagonist of the first film,” Goyer said, “but we decided early on that he would not be the protagonist of the second film—that, in fact, Harvey Dent would be.”

To that end, finding the right actor to play Gotham’s district attorney was crucial. Nolan ultimately chose Aaron Eckhart, who reminded him of Robert Redford, to play the part, but Eckhart wasn’t the only star considered. Other potential Harvey Dents included Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, and Ryan Phillippe.

9. MICHAEL CAINE DIDN’T THINK THE FILM WOULD WORK ... UNTIL LEDGER WAS CAST.

Batman fans weren’t the only skeptics when it came to Nolan’s decision to deliver a new cinematic Joker. Michael Caine, who played Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler Alfred, was very apprehensive when  Nolan told him The Dark Knight’s villain would indeed be the Clown Prince of Crime, namely because Jack Nicholson’s performance as the character in 1989’s Batman still cast a very large shadow.

“You don’t try and top Jack,” Caine said.

When Nolan informed Caine that Ledger had been cast in the role, though, the film legend came around.

“I thought: ‘Now that’s the one guy that could do it!’ [laughs] My confidence came back. And then when I did this sequence with Heath, I knew we were in for some really good stuff.

10. THE JOKER’S SCARS WERE INSPIRED BY A REAL PERSON.

Nolan deliberately resisted the idea of giving The Joker an origin story in the film, opting instead to portray him as a force of pure anarchy with no discernible motivation other than chaos. For this reason, the character’s scarred face—as opposed to the chemically-induced frozen grin given to the character’s previous movie incarnation—had no clear source. In fact, the character deliberately tells different stories to different characters to explain where the scars came from. As a result, prosthetics supervisor Conor O’Sullivan was driven to take inspiration for the scars from real life. So, he used an actual man on the street as a reference.

“I immediately thought of the punk and skinhead era and some unsavory characters I had come across during this time,” O'Sullivan recalled. “The terminology for this type of wound is a ‘Glasgow’ or ‘Chelsea smile.’ My references had to be real. A delivery of fruit machines was made to the estate near my workshop and the man delivering them had a ‘Chelsea smile.' I plucked up the courage to ask him for a photo and he told me the story of how he had got his scars while being involved with “a dog fight”; needless to say I didn't pursue the matter, but the photos proved to be very useful reference.”

11. LEDGER LICKED HIS LIPS BECAUSE OF THE JOKER PROSTHETICS.

One of the most identifiable characteristics of Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker is the way he almost constantly licks his lips inside and out, probing his scars with his tongue over and over again. It adds energy to the character as well as a certain menacing quality, but it apparently was not planned. According to dialect coach Gerry Grennell, who worked with Ledger on the film, that tic arose because the scar prosthetics—which extended into Ledger’s mouth—would loosen as he performed. So, he licked his lips repeatedly in an effort to keep them in place.

"The last thing that Heath wanted to do was go back and spend another 20 minutes or half hour trying to get the lips glued back again, so he licked his lips. A lot,” Grennell recalled. “And then slowly, that became a part of the character.

12. THE MOVIE MADE IMAX HISTORY.

Though IMAX cameras are now on the verge of being used to shoot entire feature films, at the time The Dark Knight was made, the format was primarily used for documentary films to showcase things like the wondrous detail of nature. Nolan had longed for years to bring the format to features, and opted to use the ultra-heavy, ultra-expensive cameras to film several major sequences in The Dark Knight. Most famously, the film’s prologue—featuring The Joker’s bank robbery—was filmed on IMAX and released early, in its entirety, as a teaser.

13. THE JOKER FREAKED CAINE OUT SO MUCH, HE FORGOT HIS LINES.

For the scene in which Bruce Wayne is hosting a fundraiser for Harvey Dent in his elegant Gotham City townhouse, Ledger and a group of Joker goons were meant to burst into the party via the elevator. Caine, as Alfred, was supposed to be there waiting to greet guests as the elevator doors opened, only to be frightened by the appearance of The Joker. Caine was there waiting, the elevator doors opened, and he was apparently so frightened by what he saw that any lines he was meant to deliver during the scene completely left his mind.

"I was waiting for Batman's guests, but (the Joker) had taken over the elevator with—he has seven dwarfs and ... oh! wait until you see them,” he said while promoting the film. “So, I'd never seen any of it and the elevator door opened and they came out and I forgot every bloody line. They frightened the bloody life out of me.”

14. THE TRUCK FLIPPING SEQUENCE WAS DONE FOR REAL.

Embracing the hyperrealism of his version of Batman, Nolan opted to do many of The Dark Knight’s biggest stunts practically rather than relying on CGI. That includes arguably the biggest and most visually staggering stunt in the film: When Batman uses steel cables to flip The Joker’s 18-wheeler trailer over cab in the middle of a Gotham street. While another filmmaker might have opted to recreate the moment with computers or models, Nolan wanted to do it for real, on a real Chicago street. The task of pulling it off fell to special effects supervisor Chris Corbould, who ran tests in a more isolated area to ensure the flip wouldn’t harm any member of the crew or any neighboring buildings. With the tests successful, the production was primed to film the stunt … though Corbould still tried to talk Nolan into scaling it down.

“It was a funny thing—and this is always the way working with Chris—where he kept trying to talk me into a smaller vehicle,” Nolan said. “He said, ‘Can't it be one of those SWAT vans, not an articulated truck?!’ I kind of went along with that for a while and we storyboarded it that way and kept talking about it. And I finally just went to him and said, ‘Chris, you can do this, you're fine. It's gotta be a huge truck, it's gotta be a big 18-wheeler,’ and he went ‘Oh, all right,’ in that way he does, and he figured out a way to do it. Nobody had ever done it before and it was really a pretty amazing thing to watch."

15. CHRISTIAN BALE PERCHED ON SKYSCRAPERS HIMSELF AS BATMAN.

One of the most beautiful shots in the film finds Batman, cape billowing around him, perched atop Chicago’s Sears Tower as he surveys his city. It’s a gorgeous image, but also one that easily could have been carried out by a stuntman so Bale didn’t have to take the risk. The star was having none of that. When he found out his stuntman Buster Reeves was preparing to perform the perch, Bale rushed to convince Nolan that he should be the one to stand 110 stories above Chicago for the helicopter shot. 

“It was important for me to do that shot,” Bale explained, “because I wanted to be able to say I did it. 

Bale also opted to perform a similar stunt in which Batman stands on a ledge of the IFC2 building in Hong Kong. By then, he was quite comfortable with the height. 

16. BALE COULDN’T MANAGE THE BATPOD. 

One of the great visual hallmarks of Nolan’s Batman films is the introduction of the Batpod, The Dark Knight’s sleek motorcycle. While it may look like an oversized version of any other bike, the pod didn’t handle the same way, so a specially trained stunt driver was required. Jean-Pierre Goy was the man. He took to the vehicle immediately and trained for months to master the high-speed sequences required for the film. Bale, who was more than willing to volunteer to drive the Batpod, was ultimately only able to ride it when it was attached to camera rigs.

“Jean-Pierre was the only one who could master it,” Bale admitted. “Everybody else just fell off instantly.”

17. THE FILM INCLUDES A SMALL TRIBUTE TO LEDGER’S DAUGHTER.

For the scene in which The Joker sneaks into a panicked Gotham hospital to see Harvey Dent, Ledger dressed up in a nurse’s uniform. If you look closely, you’ll see that the nurse’s name tag reads “Matilda.” Matilda is Ledger’s daughter, who was born in 2005.

18. A SITTING U.S. SENATOR MADE A CAMEO.

When The Joker and his goons crash Bruce Wayne’s fundraising party, almost everyone in the room is intimidated into silence. One man, though, is not. He tells The Joker “we’re not intimidated by thugs,” and The Joker then grabs him and holds a knife to his mouth. That man is Patrick Leahy, the Democratic U.S. Senator from Vermont. A lifelong comic book fan, Leahy has appeared in five Batman films to date, including 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, where he sat alongside actress Holly Hunter in a congressional hearing.

19. THE MAYOR OF A CITY CALLED “BATMAN” SUED THE PRODUCTION.

Weird lawsuits surrounding major motion pictures are nothing new, but The Dark Knight inspired a particularly strange one. In late 2008, after the film had opened to rapturous critical acclaim and enormous box office success, Huseyin Kalkan—the mayor of Batman, Turkey—sued Nolan and Warner Brothers for what he deemed a negative impact the film had caused on his city.

"There is only one Batman in the world. The American producers used the name of our city without informing us."

Needless to say, given that Batman is still as popular as ever, the suit didn’t go anywhere.

Additional Source:
The Art and Making of The Dark Knight Trilogy, by Jody Duncan Jesser and Janine Pourroy

10 Things That Went Disastrously Wrong on Disneyland’s Opening Day

Disneyland is commonly known as the “Happiest Place on Earth,” but when the park opened on July 17, 1955, it didn’t live up to its now-ubiquitous nickname. In fact, Disney employees who survived the day refer to it as “Black Sunday.” Here are 10 of the most disastrous things that went wrong.

1. FAKE TICKETS FLOODED THE PARK.

Disneyland’s opening day was “invite only” and not for public consumption. Tickets were mailed out and only reserved for special guests, including friends and family of employees, the press, and celebrities, such as Jerry Lewis, Debbie Reynolds, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Frank Sinatra. However, scores of counterfeit tickets were widespread on opening day. Disneyland was only expecting about 15,000 guests in total, but more than 28,000 people entered the park.

In addition, there were two sets of tickets with designated times: one for the morning and one for the afternoon. The time to leave Disneyland was printed on each ticket, so if it read 2:30 p.m., you were supposed to leave the park at that time to make way for the afternoon ticket holders to come in. Unfortunately, the morning ticket crowd didn’t leave, so attendance ballooned when the afternoon attendees were admitted.

There was even some money to be made from Disney's woes: one man set up a ladder outside one of the park's fences and charged $5 per person to climb it and sneak in.

2. TRAFFIC WAS BACKED UP FOR MILES.

Sukarno riding mini car with Walt Disney
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Since Disneyland and the city of Anaheim were not prepared for the amount of people that showed up, California's Santa Ana Freeway that led into the park was backed up for seven miles. The traffic essentially shut down the freeway for hours. In fact, people were in their cars for so long that when they finally made it to Disneyland, there were reports of families taking restroom breaks in the parking lot and on the side of the freeway.

3. THE PARK WAS COVERED WITH WET PAINT AND WEEDS.

Completing Disneyland was a race to the finish. Walt Disney wanted a quick turnaround, and it took exactly one year and one day from announcement to opening day, with construction crews working around-the-clock to meet their deadlines. 

However, once the doors opened, guests could easily see that it was not completely finished. Workers were still painting structures and planting trees all over the park. Along the Canal Boats of the World (now the Storybook Land Canal Boats), weeds had yet to be removed from the riverbanks. And instead of landscaping the area, Walt Disney simply added signs with Latin plant names printed on them to make it look like they were meant to be there.

In addition, a number of rides were still under construction like Tomorrowland’s Rocket to the Moon, which showed a glimpse of what routine space travel would look like in the distant future of ... 1986.

4. NO FOOD, NO DRINK, NO FUN.

For the lucky people who made it into Disneyland on opening day, they experienced a shortage of food and beverages in every restaurant and concession stand in the park. Because of the unexpected influx of guests, virtually all food and drink inventory was wiped out within hours.

5. THERE WAS A PLUMBERS' STRIKE.

Entrance to Disneyland circa 1957
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

While there were plenty of water fountains on site, many of them were not working because of a plumbers’ strike during construction. Walt Disney had to choose between working water fountains or working restrooms for Disneyland on opening day, so he picked the latter because he felt the toilets were more important.

“A few weeks before the opening, there was a major meeting,” Dick Nunis, chairman of Walt Disney Attractions, explained to WIRED. “There was a plumbing strike. I’ll never forget this. I happened to be in the meeting. So the contractor was telling Walt, ‘Walt, there aren’t enough hours in the day to finish the restrooms and to finish all the drinking fountains.’ And this is classic Walt. He said, ‘Well, you know they could drink Coke and Pepsi, but they can’t pee in the streets. Finish the restrooms.’”

6. THE WEATHER WAS SCORCHING.

Although Walt Disney had no control over the weather, it contributed to the disastrous opening day experience at Disneyland. Temperatures reached an intense 100 degrees, which must have been unbearable in a park without working water fountains. The day was so hot that the fresh asphalt became like a sticky tar, with guests complaining that they were getting their shoes and high heels stuck in the pavement of Main Street, U.S.A.

7. THE RIDES WERE BREAKING DOWN.

Like so many of the other workers toiling to make Walt Disney's one-year deadline, both Disney Imagineers and construction workers rushed to complete the theme park. As a result, a number of rides—including Peter Pan’s Flight, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage, and Dumbo the Flying Elephant in Fantasyland—broke down or were closed altogether because they simply were not finished yet.

The growing pains didn’t stop on opening day. During the first few weeks after opening, the stagecoach ride in Frontierland permanently closed when it was discovered it would flip over if it was too top-heavy; 36 cars in Autopia crashed due to aggressive driving (ironically the ride was designed to help children learn respectful rules of the road); and a tiger and a panther escaped from the circus attraction, which resulted in a “furious death struggle” between the animals on Main Street, U.S.A.

8. THE MARK TWAIN RIVERBOAT SANK.

The iconic Mark Twain Riverboat in Frontierland was filled way over capacity on opening day, with about 500 people cramming into the attraction. This caused the boat to go off its track and sink in the mud, but the ordeal was far from over.

"It took about 20 to 30 minutes to get it fixed and back on the rail and it came chugging in," Terry O'Brien, who was working the ride on opening day, later recalled in an interview. "As soon as it pulled up to the landing, all the people rushed to the side to get off, and the boat tipped into the water again, so they all had to wade off through the water, and some of them were pretty mad."

9. SLEEPING BEAUTY’S CASTLE ALMOST CAUGHT FIRE.

A gas leak in the park prompted the closing of Adventureland, Fantasyland, and Frontierland for a few hours, while flames from the leak were seen trying to engulf Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. Walt Disney was so busy during opening day that he didn’t learn about the fire until the following day.

10. ABC'S LIVE SHOW FROM DISNEYLAND WAS A TRAIN WRECK.

Walt Disney had a partnership with the broadcast network ABC, which helped finance Disneyland with an investment of $5 million of the park’s $17 million price tag. In return, Walt Disney would host a weekly TV show about what people could expect to see in Disneyland, a full year before it was set to open its doors.

On opening day, Walt Disney hosted a 90-minute live TV special with co-hosts Art Linkletter, Bob Cummings, and future president Ronald Reagan. Over 90 million viewers tuned in to see the “Happiest Place on Earth.” And while the cameras showed the fun and excitement of Disneyland, the TV special obscured the numerous disasters described above.

However, the live broadcast itself was riddled with technical difficulties, such as guests tripping over camera cables all over the park, faulty miscues, on-air flubs, hot mics, and unexpected moments that were caught on camera—namely Bob Cummings caught making out with a dancer just before going on air.

“This is not so much a show, as it is a special event,” Art Linklater said during the live broadcast from Disneyland. “The rehearsal went about the way you'd expect a rehearsal to go if you were covering three volcanoes all erupting at the same time, and you didn't expect any of them. So, from time to time, if I say, ‘We take you now by camera to the snapping crocodiles in Adventureland,’ and instead, somebody pushes the wrong button, and we catch Irene Dunne adjusting her bustle on the Mark Twain, don't be too surprised.”

The live broadcast also featured the debut of the original Mouseketeers from The Mickey Mouse Club TV show, which premiered a few months later in 1955 on ABC. So at least something positive came out of all of it.

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