The Hurt Locker: In Praise of War (Films)

But will Kathryn Bigelow’s film be this year’s Brokeback Mountain?

by Gordon Campbell

Obviously, war movies are fiction – there is an entire generation whose mental images of the Vietnam War owe more to Francis Ford Coppola and Oliver Stone than to any news bulletins of the day, or any dutiful war memoirs. Same for me. My most indelible image of WWII was probably the sight of Jack Palance getting his arm run over by a tank – but did that stop him ? – in the war movie Attack ! that I saw as a very small child.

In other words, war movies are (for most of us, anyway) virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. Or at least, almost indistinguishable from any other real thing we haven’t directly experienced. Thank goodness then that when it comes to looking back on the current war in Iraq, future generations will have at least one good film to rely on. At time of writing, it remains to be seen what – if anything – The Hurt Locker will have won at the March 7 Oscars. For quite a while, it was a film that nobody wanted. After screening at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival it was left on the shelf for nearly a year – before re-emerging last June on limited release, where it earned a miserable $15 million at the box office.

The prominence the film has since achieved – mainly by word of mouth, because relatively few people have actually seen it – will have certainly raised the ante by the time it finally reaches theatres in this country. I saw it last September on a tiny screen on a plane somewhere above Central Asia and thought it was extraordinary – the only one of this year’s contenders that anyone will care a jot about in ten year’s time.

Maybe the fact it has made the Oscar final list is victory enough. If Academy voters finally choose the sugary fable (The Blind Side) or the stale charms of George Clooney in Up in the Air, then so be it. Only Avatar deserves to beat it, and then only because the forces of global democracy sort of demand that it should. Who would have thought that James Cameron, director of Titanic, would ever be known for anything else ?

Back to The Hurt Locker, and to war films in general. The list of good to great war films is not a particularly long one. My own shortlist – if we’re allowed to include the sub-category of prisoner of war films – would consist of Paths of Glory, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Big Red One, Attack ! (pictured left), Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Battle of Algiers, Cross of Iron, Hamburger Hill, Platoon and The Thin Red Line – and (maybe) Pork Chop Hill and the sainted anti-war epic All Quiet on the Western Front, both directed by Lewis Milestone. At a stretch I’d also include Robert Aldrich’s 1972 movie Ulzana’s Raid, which is really a Vietnam war movie disguised as a Western.

Even these films – Platoon excepted – tend to demonstrate the futility of war from a fairly safe distance. Usually, by pitying the combatants trapped in the carnage, and by feeling outrage from the popcorn stalls on their behalf as they struggle against the bad decisions of incompetent and/or corrupt leaders. Poor Jack Palance in Attack! for instance, was up against one commanding officer who was a coward (Eddie Albert) and another who was a political schemer (Lee Marvin) – and compared to them, the Germans were a breeze.

What I’m getting at is that war films have tended to be on either blatantly on our side – the Krauts/Japs/Commies are coming ! – or they take the side of the ordinary bloke in the trenches, trying to get home to wife/sweetheart and family. The Hurt Locker is the latter kind of movie. It is about a squad of soldiers who defuse bombs in Iraq, and their survival techniques, day by day. Some will criticize it for not taking an overt stance – or any stance at all – about the morality of the invasion, or the motivations of its main characters.

I would argue that the politics of The Hurt Locker – if you really need them – are to be found in the actions depicted on screen. Some of the characters in the film are scared, some are doggedly hanging on, and some of them enjoy the uncomplicated buzz of immediate danger more than the ambiguities of civilian life back home. Moreover, an unlikely sequence where one of the soldiers ventures into the city to find the family of a child that the Americans have accidentally put in harm’s way can easily function – if you really want to see it in this light – as a terrific metaphor for the entire American presence in Iraq. Namely, we kill those who we try to befriend. Hell, the soldier even threatens the very people he is trying to console.

Ultimately, it is the action sequences that make The Hurt Locker so outstanding. This film is a masterclass on where to place a camera and how to move it while you’re shooting an action film. It has very little in common with the usual action blockbuster – where ultra-fast editing, noise and a seasick camera try to fake up the excitement. Silence can be just as ominous, and exciting. And yes, the director Kathryn Bigelow is a woman. Fans of her hilariously macho film Point Break will be unsurprised to learn that there is a sequence of bare-chested male bonding through beating the shit out of each other.

I mentioned the Gregory Peck film Pork Chop Hill before. It came out in 1960, only six years after the war in Korea finally ground to an uncertain halt..It dealt with an incident very late in the Korean war – a bloody battle for a barren hilltop conducted purely so that the Americans could negotiate peace with the Chinese from a position of strength. The Chinese had a similar motive. As with The Hurt Locker, the soldiers are trying to survive within a framework made by people seperated safely from the consequences by layers of social class and thousands of kilometers.

Milestone, ever the obliging hack – he had bowed to Army complaints over his 1946 film A Walk in the Sun – agreed to tack on a ridiculous Cold War voice-over ( “Millions live in freedom because of what they did’) that totally contradicted the amoral realism of the rest of his film. Mind you, the script had also done its best to de-humanise at least half of the combatants.onscreen (“These people aren’t just Orientals, they’re Communists!”) In Bigelow’s film by contrast, the insurgents are simply unknown – just another factor in the environment that may or may not go off, before it can be defused.

SO WILL IT WIN ? Theory A says it won’t. Under Theory A, US critic Dave Karger has traced the astonishing similarity between Bigelow’s film and the losing campaign for Brokeback Mountain in 2006. Here are Karger’s stats:

“Brokeback” managed the rare feat of winning Best Picture and Best Director at both the New York and Los Angeles film critics awards; so did ““Hurt Locker.” “Brokeback” also picked up those two big prizes at the Broadcast Film Critics Awards; so did “Hurt Locker.” “Brokeback” won the trifecta of PGA, DGA, and WGA trophies; so did “Hurt Locker.” “Brokeback” won 4 BAFTAs, including Best Film, Director, and Screenplay; “Hurt Locker” picked up 6 awards, including Best Film, Director, and Screenplay. And of course, “Brokeback” lost the SAG cast award, and so did “Hurt Locker.” (The main difference between the two films’ tallies is that “Brokeback” did win four Globes, including Best Drama and Best Director, while “Hurt Locker” went 0 for 3.)

Conversely, Theory B says The Hurt Locker will win. Theory B is based on the fact that Oscar voting is essentially an STV proportional system. Academy voters rank the ballot in preferential order – and by this logic, while Avatar could well sweep to a majority on the first ballot, the chances are it won’t. Therefore, preferences will come into play – and the feeling around town is that The Hurt Locker will score enough on second, third and fourth preferences to reach a majority some time around the third or fourth calculation. Of course, the same factor could skew the outcome in the direction of that nice Sandra Bullock and her wretched Blind Side movie. Everyone likes Sandy, don’t they ?

Footnote: one last point about those old war films. Ultimately, The Bridge on the River Kwai may have more in common with The Hurt Locker than any other of the war films mentioned above. This may seems an unlikely comparison – a David Lean epic from the 1950s and a low budget indie nearly sixty years later ? The similarity is that the content in both cases deals with the crazy things that people cling to in order to survive, within a morally perverse situation.

In the older movie, three irrational forces gradually converge – the stiff upper lip code of the British captive (Alec Guinness pictured left) the death before dishonour bushido code of the Japanese camp commander ( Sessue Hayakawa) and the cynically wise-ass worldview of the American (William Holden) who seeks to blow up the very same bridge that Guinness has decided will be a fine, morale boosting example of British moral superiority for the other chaps in the concentration camp. Needless to say, it doesn’t work out well for anyone. It doesn’t for the people in The Hurt Locker, either, which is just as well. That way, no one is ever likely to turn a war film into a franchise.