The Patrol (and 5 other modern British war films)
We Brits don’t really make war films anymore – you could argue that we don’t really make anything anymore – so when a modern British war film arrives on the scene it’s worth taking notice. Next week will see the Blu-Ray and DVD release of The Patrol, a proper right-in-the-thick-of-the-action war movie, made by the British, about the British Army.
The director, Tom Petch, has been steadily building a name for himself in recent years, having written and directed a handful of short films, including Low Street starring British actors Patrick Baladi and Denis Lavant, which earned him a nomination for best newcomer at the Raindance, Foyle, LA and Soho Rushes Film Festivals. It is perhaps no surprise to learn that he also served in the British Army for eight years.
Set in Afghanistan’s turbulent Helmand Province in 2006, The Patrol tells the story of a British ‘operational mentor and liason team’ tasked with assisting the Afghan army in defending the town of Helmand against the rising Taliban insurgency. The small army unit is initially deployed for Operation Icarus, supposedly an operation that is due to last only three days while the SAS carry out a night time raid on a Taliban stronghold. However, as history has shown, the size and strength of the Taliban forces has been severely underestimated and the members of the unit find themselves on the frontline in a seemingly unending battle with their enemy. Before long, faced with no real way of changing the course of the battle and chronically under-equipped, the soldiers begin to doubt the wisdom behind the operation end, inevitably, their role in the wider conflict.
This is an impressive feature-length debut from Petch for a number of reasons. Firstly, this is no American-style all-guns-blazing bravado film, far from it. Unlike many of the classic British war films such as The Dam Busters and Where Eagles Dare, the war depicted was far from having unanimous public support and it is inevitable that some of that doubt might creep into the minds of the soldiers on the front line. Petch’s film tackles the issues they face with a thoughtfulness and realism that perhaps only someone with real army experience could achieve, knowing that the question of whether or not a war is a justified is often a complex one.
In addition the film was shot on a very modest budget, not an easy task when making a war film considering the amount of gear that is bound to get destroyed in the process, but the conflict scenes are realistic and highly believable without being overly bombastic. The cast, while not boasting any major-league stars, is a talented one and their excellent performances are assisted by Petch’s subtle and nuanced direction.
There are, of course, reasons why we don’t see many British war films these days. If you consider some of the conflicts we’ve been involved in over recent years – The Falklands, Afghanistan, Iraq, Northern Ireland – it’s difficult to find one that doesn’t involve some level of controversy. This causes two problems: the first is a perceived lack of appetite among audiences for this type of movie, the second is the political ramifications of making such a film, both of which have affected the ability of film projects like Kajaki to obtain funding through the traditional routes, instead turning to crowdfunding as the only viable option.
Those looking forward to seeing Kajaki may have a while to wait yet, but in the meantime we had a dig around to see if we could find 5 modern, British-made war films. It wasn’t easy, but here goes…
The Killing Fields
Roland Joffé’s 1984 film is set in Cambodia during the civil war and stars Sam Waterston as New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg, there to capture the horrors of Pol Pot’s ‘Year Zero’ campaign of ethnic cleansing that saw the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal rampage through the country kill an estimated 3 million civilians. Schanberg befriends a local man named Dith Pran who puts himself in great danger to assist the journalist in his quest to tell the real story of Cambodia’s horrific and disastrous military coup. A tale of friendship and the struggle against persecution, this film is essential if uncomfortable viewing.
The Mark of Cain
Another British film about our recent military campaigns in the Middle East, this time in Iraq, where two 18-year-old soldiers named Gulliver and Tate return from a tour of duty to find themselves embroiled in controversy when photographs depicting them mistreating Iraqi civilians during a house raid operation are leaked to the press by Gulliver’s jilted girlfriend. Drawing parallels with the controversy surrounding the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, this is another film that calls into to question our role in foreign conflicts. Directed by Mark Munden and featuring Shameless star Gerard Kearns as Gulliver, it’s well worth a look if war films are your thing.
The Wipers Times
Although this is a made-for-TV movie, screened last year by the BBC, we’ve included it on the basis that it’s a rare comic depiction of a wartime situation. Set in the trenches of the Flemish provinces of Belgium during WWI, The Wipers Times tells the true story of an underground satirical magazine that was written, printed and circulated throughout the British army by a group of frontline soldiers who discover a printing press near the base in the town of Ypres (the name given to the magazine is taken from a deliberate mispronunciation of the town’s name). Written by Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, the film stars Ben Chaplin and Julian Rhind-Tutt as the men behind the publication, who manage to avoid punishment by the army’s top brass through support from mid-ranking officers who see the value of the magazine’s positive effect on morale. Funny, unique and very enjoyable, this is highly recommended.
Half of a Yellow Sun
This film is a joint British-Nigerian production starring Oscar winner Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton, which depicts the lives of four people during the civil war that saw many Nigerians struggling to establish an independent republic. Based on the novel of the same name by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the film is still showing in a handful Of UK cinemas and Ejiofor gives another very strong performance in the role of Odenigbo.
Although this was another film made for TV it did premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002. James Nesbitt stars in this account of the infamous massacre of Derry residents at the hands of the British military in 1972, in which 13 civilians were killed and many more injured. It’s tough subject matter and the chaotic and often distressing scenes don’t exactly cover the Brits in glory, but Paul Greengrass’ film is well acted, well directed and, as you would expect, highly emotionally charged. Well worth a watch.