Thursday, 26 June 2014


I was on BBC Radio 4's Film Programme today (we taped it yesterday). It's available on I player (link to it here), and will also be repeated on Sunday at 11pm; it's the first item on the show. Francine Stock and I had a fascinating conversation, both on and off air, which was cut down considerably for the slot; what remains is largely the wider view, which makes sense following the Peter Berg interview about Lone Survivor.

Doing the research for the interview, I realised there are quite a few Afghan war films I not only had not seen, but which had barely made an impression on me. We didn't record a conversation of why these films have made less impact than a number about Iraq, but I may review some here at IT along the way. We did discuss the two versions of Brothers, Susanne Bier's Danish one starring Ulrich Thomsen, and the American remake, directed by the Irishman Jim Sheridan, with Toby Maguire and Jake Gyllenhall. I pointed out that the Danish experience in the Middle East has had significant play in their TV series shown here, not only Borgen but some of the crime series as well, and more significantly that I am convinced Brothers is the source material, or inspiration, for Homeland.

Homeland was also a connecting point for me, to examine how wars that are unpopular, or at least not being fought by the country as a whole (the Bush wars are now 11 years old, and still make little impact on the home front--people scream 'support the troops' and keep their children home to watch American Idol) produce films that tend to concentrate on the effect of the war on us. In our discussion I had declared Three Kings the best of the movies set in these specific wars, but it had the advantage of that war's being over, and the ambiguity of our withdrawal as its political core. Most of the early, successful, films about Vietnam were about the home front, not just The Deer Hunter (which I still consider hollow) but Coming Home, Tracks, Rolling Thunder, and Who'll Stop The Rain (aka Dog Soldiers). Taxi Driver is part of that bunch too. Of course there were allegorical critiques, like MASH, Catch 22, or Soldier Blue.

The best of the recent  homefront movies is probably In The Valley Of Elah, where Tommy Lee Jones hardens director Paul Haggis' more liberal instincts. But you heard Francine mention Lions For Lambs, which we actually discussed in the tapings--I called it a remake of Starship Troopers which dares to question Ayn Rand.

We used to be less triumphalist. The British think their war films are more realistic and more understated, but they aren't. Look at the World War II combat films produced during the war, and how many of them involve loss and last stands. They Were Expendable, Air Force, Bataan, Corregidor, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, are the films of a nation who like to feel themselves the underdogs.

We also mentioned 9th Company, Fyodor Bondarchuk's movie set in the Soviet war in Afghanistan, which I'm going to see soon and write about, and we didn't get to talk enough about the specific documentaries.

And though when they called I assumed it was to ask me to talk about  Jersey Boys, as I've written The Pocket Essential Clint Eastwood and I am old enough to have bought Four Seasons' 45s, I did at least get to talk to Francine about Clint's next film, American Sniper, which, like Lone Survivor, is based on Navy Seals, in this case the memoir of a Seal sniper. It's interesting that Clint played an assassin in Where Eagles Dare, a very Sergio Leone character in Kelly's Heroes, but when it came to war movies he's made only three: the very triumphal, very cliched, and basically Green Berets update (with victory at the end) Heartbreak Ridge, and then the much more sombre Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, both very much about the kinds of issues which Peter Berg described, the horrible toll taken on men at war. So I'm looking forward to seeing what sort of take Clint brings to that one.

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