Tag Archives: war films

Watching Tarkovsky in a Time of Terror

Tarkovsky Rublev
Andrei Rublev

The great Russian master’s work offers hope in troubled times.

2016 has been one rolling piece of shit. Imagine the burning things Spartacus’ slave army roll down the hill into the advancing Roman army in Kubrick’s epic film, but imagine that the things on fire are bundles of shit and that will give you some idea of 2016’s unrelenting avalanche of bad, worse and worst news. Already reeling from the Bataclan and San Bernardino massacres from 2015, we’re now seeing people being shot, blown up, hacked with knives and axes and driven over by trucks – a failed coup in Turkey, a wedding party blown to smithereens, the endless horror of Aleppo. The geographical list now associated with individual atrocities is becoming depressingly long, blotting the Google map of our psycho-geography with cigarette burns of destruction. I know we shouldn’t succumb to terrorism; and I understand, statistically, I’m more likely to be killed from a bee sting than a car bomb, but it’s pointless to ignore the fact: the terror is working. The Western mind is closing: a deep Brexit of the soul has begun; the far right is on the rise; racism rears a brutish face and, as Yeats might put it, President Trump shuffles towards Bethlehem to be born.

So why am I watching the films of Andrei Tarkovsky? Why am I doing anything for that matter that doesn’t involve wailing and gnashing and the rending of garments? Well, the mundane reason: I need to review them. It’s summer and nobody else was up for three hours of a Russian monk trying to draw pictures on a church wall in black and white. But as I watched late into the night, each film seemed to echo my own doubts: ‘What’s the point? How can you continue? How can anyone continue?’

Tarkovsky’s first feature Ivan’s Childhood shows us a war child on the Eastern front, whose world is made up of rain-filled craters, nightmare forests and the constant possibility of violent death. For all that Ivan’s no victim. His childhood is more this war-torn present than the dreamlike memories of a time when his family were still unkilled by the Nazis and he is eager to be sent on suicidal missions behind the lines. Life during wartime is going to present its share of horror – as distinct from the terror we live with – but it was with Andrei Rublev that Tarkovsky gave his audiences a portrait of the nightmare of history and how it hammers people into submission, silence or death. Terror is everywhere in his 15th-century Russia. Whether it comes from a group of soldiers beating up a jester, the warring noblemen, two brothers locked in such deadly enmity that they will jealously blind artisans to stop them repeating their work, or invading Tartars: violence can be sudden and brutal and the art of the eponymous artist Andrei – the icon painter – is compromised by the violence of the church of which he is a member and its (and his) official patrons. Horses are often used throughout Tarkovsky’s movies as a symbol of hope, of life itself. In a horrific scene of siege, a horse gets thrown down a flight of stairs, swept into a river and finally stabbed to death in the field. That’s what happens to hope. That’s what happens to life. Following such violence, Andrei gives up. Stops working. There’s nothing to be said; no glory to be celebrated. Only guilt and withdrawal. Fear and loathing.

It’s a radical but not unusual revelation. The Holocaust makes poetry impossible. The rest is silence – but the silence will be broken by a young boy, the only surviving member of a bell-making family (another child Ivan) who supervises the casting of a giant church bell as he’s the only one left with the secret knowledge of how to do it. The Prince threatens death to the workmen if they fail, but miraculously, from earth, water and fire they cast this beautiful industrial machine that rings. It breaks Andrei’s silence as well who, inspired by the boy’s art, returns to the world, so to speak. But the boy is distraught. There was never any secret, he confides. This is the mystery of art for Tarkovsky: there is no mystery. The miracle is we don’t need miracles.

This empty mystery returns throughout Tarkovsky’s films: an enigma wrapped in a puzzle. In Solaris, it’s the sentient planet, trying to communicate via our memories, our love, ghosts and regret. In Stalker, it’s the Room inside the Zone, a room in which whoever enters gets what they always wanted. The catch is they don’t necessarily know what they want until it’s too late. An unhappy party of men journey to the Room, and one of them has a bomb. Can there be no good in the world? Must it always be destroyed? In Sacrifice, it is the end of the world in a nuclear war, played out as the nightmare of an aging theatre director. When history is rewound and war impossibly, magically averted, the director burns down his house as the doctors come to cart him off to the local looney bin, but his insanity is the most rational reaction to the crazier world-wide destruction that is threatened.

Throughout all of his films, Tarkovsky offers love, self-denying, self-sacrificing love as the only answer. For all their highbrow reputation, the films never shy away from raw emotion, just as his raw materials are as elemental as fire, water, earth – often all represented in the same masterfully composed shot: a fire burns, rain pours and a wind wants to tear the trees from the ground. The resilience of his vision and the reason they spoke through the pain of this moment in history, this shitty piece of 2016, is due to their confrontation with the pain and suffering of the world, the mediocre evils as well as the atrocious ones, and to still offer liberating hope. Albeit hope that risks being knocked down the stairs and stabbed with spears.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s films are released in the UK by Curzon Artificial Eye.

John Bleasdale

Apocalypse Then

Apocalypse Now4
Apocalypse Now

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 9 January 2012

Distributor: Optimum Home Entertainment

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Writers: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Herr (narration)

Based on the novel Heart of Darkness by: Joseph Conrad

Cast: Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Laurence Fishburne, Sam Bottoms, Frederick Forrest, Albert Hall

USA 1979

153 mins

Apocalypse Now is a modernist novel made film in more ways than one. The opening montage is a palimpsest of a Dante-esque, napalm fuelled hell, with Martin Sheen’s blank Hindu stare inverted and staring back; all to the sound of The Doors basically announcing ‘in the end is my beginning’ to quote T. S. Eliot’s ‘East Coker’. It won’t be the last quotation.

From the mission-inciting Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) quoting Lincoln to Dennis Hopper’s veritable golden treasury of verse (Kipling and Eliot again), Francis Ford Coppola litters his film with literary associations like an anxious host leaving books scattered artfully around an apartment before a dinner party. In fact, the camera drifts over Kurtz’s bedside reading – From Ritual to Romance by Jessie Weston and The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer. Both books were vital to the writing of ‘The Wasteland’, almost as if Kurtz is Eliot and ‘The Wasteland’ the poem he is writing around himself, shoring up his fragments. He reads a stanza of Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’, tactfully neglecting the Conrad quotation at the front of the poem which reads ‘Mistuh Kurtz, he dead’. In searching him out, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) will basically read himself up the river, as he pours over the files and narrates with the jaded literary tone of Michael Herr’s tersely perfect Marlovian (though Chandler, more than Conrad) wit.

The film is based on the key modernist text of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Coppola reiterates in every audio commentary and documentary (see Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, 1991) that he took the book to the shoot instead of the script; that he read Brando the book from cover to cover as a way of getting him into the role; that he increasingly saw the book as his inspiration rather than the more straightforward war movie screenwriter John Milius had envisioned. (Ironically, Conrad also began writing basic adventure yarns, before making a move for something altogether more ambitious with this enigmatic novella.) Coppola was also aligning himself with Orson Welles, who had famously failed to adapt Conrad’s book for his debut film, the first of what was to become a string of tantalisingly failed projects. What’s more, his self-aggrandising myth valorises the confusion and chaos of the production as part of his process: every film Coppola makes somehow takes on the modus operandi of its subject and so Apocalypse Now becomes Heart of Darkness, becomes Vietnam.

Putting the rumbling of the gigantic production to one side, the film is actually a remarkably tight and accomplished piece of work – especially when compared to the flabby, dissipated and unnecessary Redux released in 2001. After the hallucinatory, drunken visions of the opening, the film takes a brisk cold shower, lays on some riveting exposition and gets on the boat – and of course the boat, called the Erebus (not Marlow’s more prosaic Nelly), like the Orca in Jaws and the Pequod in Moby Dick is a symbol/cross-section of male America. On board, we have the relaxed, spaced out and utterly untrustworthy Lance (Sam Bottoms), the jumpy New Orlean Chef (Frederick Forrest), the black youngster Clean (Laurence Fishburne) and Chief Philips (Albert Hall), the father figure and conscience. Sheen’s Willard, on the other hand, is basically ‘American involvement in Vietnam’ embodied. He’s the reason they’re all where they are: he’s the one who refuses to turn back and he remains ambivalent to the purpose of his mission, unsure of whether he will fulfil it or not but morbidly, cynically fascinated by the journey. In this, he resembles Kinski’s Aguirre on Xanax, viciously unconcerned about the damage he is causing, casually murdering a wounded unarmed woman merely to speed up his mission. His wistful unperturbed gaze at the horrors and the self-satisfied rightness of his narration – ‘charging someone with murder here is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500’ – makes him the cool appraising judgement that Brando’s Kurtz is so neurotically afraid of. Willard has found the total freedom that comes with obeying orders (especially orders that don’t officially exist) and he has come to murder the more agonised freedom of Kurtz’s, making it up as he goes along. ‘You disapprove of my methods?’ Kurtz asks when they meet. ‘I don’t see any method at all,’ Willard waspishly responds.

Despite ‘the horror, the horror’ of Kurtz’s mad excess, Apocalypse Now is an unrelentingly beautiful film. Following David Lean’s lead in the famous poppy field scene in Doctor Zhivago, Coppola realises that war can be both brutal and gorgeous. The Ride of the Valkyries is justifiably regarded as one of the best sequences American cinema has produced, but Chef’s search for mangos and Lance’s LSD inspired wandering with Willard in search of a commanding officer are just as dazzlingly filmed. When Lance disposes of the chief’s body, the corpse almost dissolves in the molten and golden light of the river. The darkness is aesthetically luxuriated in as Brando’s wonderful pate dips in and out of it like warm water. And Kurtz himself is a knowingly theatrical presence, whose set decoration is too avant-garde for the authorities, but who at least has the opportunity to script and direct his own leaving of the scene.

John Bleasdale

Everybody Dies

Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb


Because of the nature of this article, it is impossible to give a spoiler alert for specific films. By simply naming the film, the spoiler is already done. So readers are hereby warned. I have made sure, however, that the most recent film I have used is from 2008 and so these are all films you have had a chance to see.

There is a definition of the difference between comedy and tragedy, which I think comes from the marvellously named Northrop Frye. It goes something like this: tragedy says ‘everybody dies’ and comedy says, ‘ah well, life goes on’. In tragedy, everybody (usually) does not die. We always have our Horatios, to ‘draw his breath in pain’ and recount the story of what happened. In cinema, likewise, Horatios abound; survivors of massacres and shoot-outs, who live on older and wiser, like on-screen audience members. Think of The Wild Bunch (1969) and Deke Thornton, played by Robert Ryan. He is the only original member of the gang to survive. Their bloody finale is a battle he witnesses, but does not participate in. His arrival also retroactively justifies their suicidal decision. Had they survived, they would have been forced into a fratricidal showdown with Deke and his bounty hunters. As is also the case in Red River (1948), a third party antagonist allows a much more painful family quarrel to be sidestepped.

Westerns and War Movies

When everybody dies in a Western, it is partly because as a genre its ruling theme is one of loss and decline. They Died with Their Boots On (1941) is still startling to watch today as Errol Flynn’s cavalry unit is wiped out. However, that was the portrait of a massacre, a massacre that itself went on to both erase and justify other much larger, much more destructive massacres: a genocide in fact. Once upon a Time in the West (1968) begins with death – the three waiting gunmen are dispatched with brilliant abruptness – continues with death – the massacre of a family and sundry hired guns – and ends with the death of the three male protagonists: Frank is killed on camera, Cheyenne’s death is indicated through the soundtrack and Harmonica’s is implied – he has in fact been dying from the very first shoot-out. As in The Wild Bunch, an old masculine way of life has died as civilisation and a new female-dominated space persist. Claudia Cardinale survives to run her business, perhaps to tell the tale, but probably secretly relieved not only that her tormentor is gone, but likewise her quasi-rapist saviours.

The West needs its men to die. Likewise war films demand high body counts, and the death of the main protagonists can be almost total. Of course, death is valued and figured differently in different genres. In a war movie, like Saving Private Ryan (1998), the meaningless deaths that begin the film are substituted with the meaningful sacrifices that conclude the film. Captain Miller’s last words insist that his death and the death of practically his whole squad be given meaning and in that way somehow redeemed. ‘Deserve this,’ he tells Matt Damon’s Private Ryan, and obviously in doing so the audience, whom Spielberg and historian Stephen Ambrose explicitly wish to remind of the heroism and sacrifice of the ‘good’ war. We are all being reprimanded. Even bad wars (Vietnam, Somalia) can be turned into life lessons. Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) both succeed in turning their whey-faced young innocents into hardened real men, usually via the meaning(ful)less deaths of their comrades in arms. But here we stray. People die during a war, lots of people, but not everybody. In fact, as with Saving Private Ryan, war movies see events from the perspective of survivors.

Although not a war movie as such, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List approaches the Holocaust from this perspective. And here this emphasis threatens to distort the actual subject. If all you knew of the world was gained from watching Schindler’s List, one could be forgiven for thinking that as bad as the Holocaust was, it wasn’t difficult to survive as long as one had a kindly Nazi to hand. Spielberg’s lucky Jews even survive the gas chamber – being led to a shower room which, despite a false alarm, is actually a shower room. Compare this to the little seen The Grey Zone (2001), directed by Tim Blake Nelson. Here, the Jews who make up the subject of the film are not lucky, nor innocent. The sonderkomando are prisoners who are responsible for seeing to the day-to-day mechanics of the gas chambers and ovens under the watchful eye of the German guards. It is they who usher in the prisoners from the train to the bathhouse; they who calm fears with lies, and they who lock the doors and then loot and burn the bodies. A Jewish pathologist working with Mengele is given special treatment, but anguishes over his decisions. Quarrelling with a fellow prisoner, he says he might bring something good out of all this and is rebuffed. ‘You give the killing purpose,’ the prisoner (played by Daniel Benzali) growls. Giving meaning to death is the most immoral reaction. The same prisoner, in organising a revolt, makes it clear that his aim is not escape, but sabotage. Survival, rather than being an imperative, becomes morally dubious. As Vasily Grossman writes of a sonderkomando in the same situation: ‘he was dimly aware that if you wish to remain a human being under fascism, there is an easier option than survival – death.’

As a film, The Grey Zone insists that everybody dies. Not only the Jews in the gas chambers, but also the sonderkomando who rebel, and the sonderkomando who don’t (they are exterminated and replaced every four months). The film’s coda also informs us that the Nazi commandant is also executed and the pathologist dies. His wife dies in the 70s. This is the opposite of Spielberg’s coda, which is almost tasteless in its argument that Schindler’s survivors have had lots of babies, as if this was a problem that could be solved with arithmetic. The ending of Schindler’s List is comic – life goes on – whereas The Grey Zone refuses to give the killing extra-narrative meaning and is decidedly tragic. Everybody dies, even the survivors will die.

Gangster and Horror

The most common films in which everybody dies are gangster and horror films. In gangster films, the offing of large numbers of principal characters can easily be explained as the old studio imperative that crime mustn’t be seen to pay (but that this must only come at the end after we’ve had our vicarious vice). It did for James Cagney in White Heat (1949), Al Pacino in Scarface (1983) and the runaways of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Going back to Jacobean tragedy for a second, Reservoir Dogs (1992) manages to kill everyone, outdoing Hamlet. Mr Pink (the weasel) appears to escape, but the soundtrack leads us to believe he was likely gunned down outside. Likewise, Mr White gets an off-screen death scene. There is no Horatio, no Deke Thornton. The film has a pleasingly classical completeness. The only speaking role who survives is Mr Orange’s superior officer and I like to think that Mr Pink got him with a stray bullet before himself falling under a hail of gunfire.

The Final Destination, Hostel and Saw franchises depend on the wholesale slaughter of their casts, making the inevitability of their deaths into something like a game. The poster line for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) – ‘Who will survive and what will be left of them?’ – runs true for a number of horror films. Going one better are the films that tell you from the very beginning that everyone involved in the incidents related in the film has been killed, or ‘gone missing’. Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is an early example of this. We know everyone has died. All that remains is to see how. Likewise in The Blair Witch Project (1999). Here, Horatio is the camera itself and the tapes or footage left behind. The same device is used in Cloverfield (2008).

Where this isn’t pre-agreed, the death of everyone can come as a shock. The most effective examples of this can be found in The Long Weekend (1978) and Open Water (2003). These are both revenge-of-nature films, and the genre implies that someone will ultimately survive to tell the tale. Both films involve couples rather than groups, and so this might lead to their vulnerability. Both films also imply the indifference of the universe to us, and therefore by extension to our need for narrative comfort. Despite its environmental credentials, 1972’s Silent Running shares a similarly terrifying view of the larger indifference of the universe.

Everybody Dies

There is a film where everybody really does die. Not just the protagonists – everybody. The main characters, the bit parts, the non-speaking extras, people who never appear on screen and the audience. Dr Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964) is the opposite of Schindler’s List. Whereas Schindler’s List is a tragedy operating in a comic universe, Dr Strangelove is a comedy realised in a tragic netherworld. The implied annihilation is rendered certain by the final shots of mushroom clouds. Even the doomsday machine doesn’t condemn humanity as finally and completely as the sound of Vera Lynn singing ‘We’ll Meet Again’ does. This irony doesn’t work without our accepting our own complete destruction. Other post-nuclear films concentrate on either the fantasy or the nightmare of a splinter of humanity remaining. However unpleasant that might be, life does go on. Dr Strangelove is unique in positing that life does not go on and is even more radically interesting in suggesting that (humanity being what it is) our all ending could be the only happy ending. The often skipped-over subtitle says it all. We love the bomb because ultimately we deserve it. The laughter inherent in Kubrick’s masterpiece is wrought with pain but also indicative of relief. Finally, life does not go on.

John Bleasdale

Some of the ideas in this article were developed with the aid of a discussion thread at film-philosophy.com and I would like to thank the film scholars who made suggestions and participated in that thread.

No Politics: The New US War Film

The Hurt Locker

In the nine years since the launch of George W Bush’s ‘War Against Terror’ in Afghanistan, a number of war movies have been made in and out of the Hollywood system, from the little-known 2006 film Home of the Brave, directed by Henry Winkler and starring Samuel L Jackson, to the 2009 Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker by Point Break director Katherine Bigelow. But despite the various storylines and locations, there’s something that almost every recent American war film has in common – a virtual absence of politics and/or propaganda. With the exception of a handful of documentaries (like 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side), few of these films have been overtly critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or on the flip side, pro-war; they have instead focused their lenses entirely on the lives of American soldiers, often excluding the ‘enemy’ from the picture altogether. Some, like In the Valley of Elah (2007), The Messenger (2009) and Brothers (2009) are melodramas that have dramatised the often-traumatic return home. But others have focused more squarely on the troops, with directors almost battling each other to present the truest, most honest depiction of life in a war zone, elevating the soldier to mythical status while avoiding any thorny foreign policy issues (soldiers barely seem to know or care why they’re over there), or any accurate depiction of life in wartime for civilians.

It’s a far cry from the Vietnam days, when returning soldiers were met at airbases by protesters demanding an end to the war; controversial films like Winter Soldier (1972) documented hearings where soldiers denounced their participation in the war and confessed to war crimes, and Hanoi Jane hung out with communists in North Vietnam. Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick and Brian De Palma (whose 2007 film Redacted is perhaps an exception to the new rule) made films about the horrors of war; soldiers were dehumanised, unleashing pain on civilians under orders from the American government; war was hell; the US had no business being there.

The current fashion seems to have started in another desert arena with Black Hawk Down (2001), based on the book by the journalist Mark Bowden and set in Somalia during the disastrous UN humanitarian mission in 1992. In October of that year, a botched mission by elite soldiers in Delta Force and Rangers resulted in the downing of a Black Hawk helicopter over Mogadishu, prompting a disastrous rescue attempt (‘we will leave no man behind’) that led to the deaths of 19 troops and about 1000 Somalis. But produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Ridley Scott, Black Hawk Down is not tragedy, but war as adrenaline-fuelled action adventure: two hours of almost non-stop videogame-style warfare as the troops fight for their survival in the crowded slums of the Somali capital. There’s a cursory explanation about why the troops were there in the first place (war-induced famine), but little in the way of politics. Instead, the film is all about honouring the cult of the soldier – it’s about the men’s bravery, their heroism, their respect and love for one another. As a character played by Eric Bana says: ‘Once that first bullet goes flying past your head, politics and all that shit goes out the window… We fight because there’s a guy next to us.’

A thriller with a smaller budget and fewer troops, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, which was the lowest-grossing film ever to win the Oscar for best picture, drops the audience straight into Iraq, with little in the way of introduction. A bomb disposal unit sends a robot to check out a pile of rubble believed to be hiding an IED (Improvised Explosive Device); when the robot takes a tumble and loses a wheel, the team leader approaches to set it back on track – but an insurgent is ready and waiting. A violent, slow-motion explosion, an easily missed smattering of blood as the force hits the fleeing team leader, and his life is extinguished. His replacement is reckless, egotistical, arrogant; he endangers the lives of his two team mates, but he gets the job done, defusing bombs with an obsessive passion. There are plenty of confrontations between Sergeant First Class William James and the more responsible Sergeant Sanborn, who doesn’t enjoy needlessly putting his life on the line, and the obligatory, drunken homoerotic wrestling match, to prove who’s craziest and toughest. But apart from a gruesome scene when a young boy is used as a body-bomb, there’s little in the way of blood, or politics, or Iraqis. When the team stumbles upon gunmen in the desert, they are seen only in the sights of a sniper rifle. Later, a car bomb explodes in the middle of the night, the horrific aftermath completely obscured from view by smoke and darkness; the team flee the scene in a mad chase to track down the insurgents responsible, and the audience is spared from having to witness a semblance of reality. Again, it’s the relationship between the men in the unit that’s important; the war is little more than a sideshow.

Although not made for the big screen, HBO Film’s seven-part Generation Kill (2008), written by David Simon and Ed Burns, is possibly one of the most intense pieces of drama made about the war in Iraq. But like Black Hawk Down and The Hurt Locker, its focus is on the troops. Based on the book by Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright, who was embedded with the 1st Recon Marines during the initial assault on Iraq in 2003, the film’s story ends after the first three months of the invasion, before the suicide bombings, insurgency and sectarian warfare plunged the country into the abyss. Admittedly more politically aware than either Black Hawk Down or The Hurt Locker (Sgt Antonio Espero rails against the White Man and imperialism, and at least the Geneva Convention gets a mention, while the troops are in the middle of breaking it), it’s first a drama about life in the Marine Corps, and secondly a drama about the war itself (it’s only really in the final episode, when they reach Baghdad, that the Marines fully realise the impact that the invasion is going to have on civilians).

A lot of the talk surrounding Generation Kill is about how realistic it is; about how real Marines can identify with what they see on screen; about how the drama captures war as it is, untouched by propaganda (for examples, see the comments on IMDB). The marines are desperate to ‘get some’, frustrated by the lack of supplies, frustrated by the lack of combat, frustrated by the chain of command; some are rednecks, racists; some are bright, intelligent, sensitive, dismayed by the deaths of civilians. And while it might be war as it is, and in a lot of ways Generation Kill is a truly great television series, with a lot of the sharp writing that made The Wire such an excellent series, it’s war as it is for Marines, not for civilians or anyone else (and certainly not for women, who aren’t allowed to serve in Recon – in fact, women are nowhere to be seen in any of these films).

Meanwhile, the latest talked-about film, out now in the US and awaiting a UK release, is the documentary Restrepo. The journalist Sebastien Junger and the photographer and filmmaker Tim Hetherington spent months embedded with a platoon in a remote outpost in Afghanistan. Their ‘Directors’ Statement’ is worth quoting: ‘The war in Afghanistan has become highly politicized, but soldiers rarely take part in that discussion. Our intention was to capture the experience of combat, boredom and fear through the eyes of the soldiers themselves. Their lives were our lives: we did not sit down with their families, we did not interview Afghans, we did not explore geopolitical debates. Soldiers are living and fighting and dying at remote outposts in Afghanistan in conditions that few Americans back home can imagine. Their experiences are important to understand, regardless of one’s political beliefs. Beliefs can be a way to avoid looking at reality. This is reality.’ Well, it’s one version of reality anyway. It certainly typifies the current trend: explore the lives of soldiers, in as realistic a way as possible; ignore the rights and wrongs; ignore the civilians, ignore everything but the men.

There seems to be an ambivalence on the part of both filmmakers and audiences towards the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq; audiences have largely stayed away, and filmmakers have mostly kept away from the politics (with sometimes surprising exceptions from Hollywood directors, like Paul Greengrass’s thriller Green Zone, 2010) and the George Clooney-produced Syriana (2005). Even Standard Operating Procedure (2008), by the esteemed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, refused to judge either the conflict or the soldiers at the heart of the Abu Ghraib scandal, dissecting the controversial and downright disturbing photographs in a clinical, almost scientific manner.

There are no conclusions in these films, no judgements – just soldiers living and dying out on the battlefield. Naturally, it is easier to focus on the (all masculine, all American) experience of war than to engage with its grey moral and political areas. But this general reluctance among filmmakers to adopt a strong standpoint is troubling. Have directors been paralysed by the fear of being accused of ‘anti-patriotism’? Or is it simply indifference?

Sarah Cronin