Sterling (2018), written by Andrew Hilton, is a spec screenplay about David Stirling, the creator of the Special Air Service (SAS). The SAS are considered one of the top special forces in the world. As a U.K. citizen myself, I figure I should know this, but before reading the screenplay I had only heard of the SAS in passing.
I found this script after hearing of The Script Mechanic, a writer/script doctor who has read over 15,000 screenplays. I figured that if someone had read so many screenplays, they could create a great one too. Right? Well, in this case the answer is yes, with some caveats.
Have you ever read a script (or seen a movie) and thought, geez this feels like an old-school movie? Not necessarily because of the lighter dialogue and lack of emotional depth, but because it follows a very linear plot that leads to a big event. Other war movies come to mind: The Great Escape (1963) and The Dirty Dozen (1967). In the case of Sterling, the big climax was a raid on Rommel’s Afrika Korps, which ended in disaster.
I have some gripes with the plot because after the anticlimactic raid goes south due to bad weather, Sterling realizes they could redo it simply using long-range vehicles supported by the Long Range Desert Group. After reading Sterling’s Wikipedia, there are so many other interesting raids he participated in, I feel as though greater weight could have been focused on those.
Putting that aside, the script read very well. I noticed Hilton used adverbs sparingly, and had a true knack for creating fast-paced yet descriptive action lines. If he teamed up with an expert in dialogue, like David Seidler, I think such a duo could write truly spectacular scripts. Granted Seidler is 85 years old, but there are others!
There are some great characters in the script. Sterling is likable, but so are officers Mayne, Lewes and others. This is a team you root to succeed, and that’s done through great screenwriting.
Dialogue & Pacing
There were some nice one-liners. The dialogue flowed well, although Sterling seemed to always get his way, which I figure must have been exceptionally hard in the bureaucratic The British Army (as an aside, my grandfather served as a Major in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He noted that he met some brilliant people, and some utter fools).
I felt Act 2 was a tad boring, yet some parts, for example, two soldiers dying in a training exercise, were mostly brushed over. On the other hand, the naming of the SAS, which occurs on page 50 (49% through the script), is done by a general in drag! There were definitely opportunities to foreshadow how infamous the SAS would become.
It’s a war movie. These are certainly intense and suspenseful moments, but I wouldn’t call it particularly deep. That’s not a bad thing though, it really was a fun read.
Best Part of The Script
The second raid is great (best part starts on page 94) as are some of the earlier scenes, ex. when Sterling, on crutches, sneaks past the sentries to propose his plan.
When I originally found this script I thought it was in production. Unfortunately, I saw on Twitter that the script never made it out and a few years later BBC created their own show on Sterling. Timing is everything. It’s too bad this one didn’t work for Hilton because it was (and still is) a good script.