Perhaps this was one fight we just couldn’t duck. Despite all manner of date-shifting and schedule-juggling, our film Kajaki will be released on DVD in the same week as . Two similarly-themed movies, but worlds apart in terms of production spend and star wattage, have picked the same window to hit the UK home-entertainment market. Accidental? We can’t be sure: we moved, they moved, they moved, we moved, and there came a point we had to pick a date and stick with it. If we are going to be sharing shelf space, the two films bear comparison. Traditionally, however, your average shopper will only pick up one DVD when doing the weekly shop. So, will it be Sniper or Kajaki ?
For me, producing a film is a profound adventure. While the genesis of a project is often deeply personal, you are very soon open to wide-ranging comments, on both the subject matter and the commercial potential of your project. Everyone has an opinion. And rarely do they concur. So the only thing you can go back to is your own interpretation and judgment. And that can be an extremely lonely place at times.
The big question for us: is the UK ready for a rebirth of modern warfare films depicting our own troops? I am sure many of us grew up with the legacy of the classic British war movie: Zulu, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape, The Dam Busters, Ice Cold in Alex … the list is a long one. But what made them uniquely British? The clipped accents? The jaunty moustaches? For me it was the message that war is pretty bloody awful, but if you are going to have to do it, best to do a good job and make sure you keep your mates alive.
That was what I kept hearing from the veterans we were working with on . Meanwhile, in the background, you could feel a shift in public attitude as the Afghan and Iraq wars ground on. As the coffins continued to come back through Royal Wootton Bassett, the nation took on a more sophisticated view of the war. It was acceptable to be anti-war – no one wanted us in that conflict – but still be supportive of our troops. Whether it was a poppy, a badge, a wristband or a T-shirt, there was a more visibly present level of public support on the streets.
American Sniper, on the other hand, comes from a very different tradition. The 70s and 80s saw some remarkable US war films: Platoon, M*A*S*H, The Deer Hunter, and the ultimate anti-war war film, Apocalypse Now. As America struggled over its involvement in Vietnam, it produced acute commentaries on the nature of war. But Sniper is in a very different place. In Chris Kyle, the film-makers chose to identify and highlight the work of the most productive and efficient sniper in the conflict, whose Call of Duty-level statistics were admired by his contemporaries, and promoted by his superiors. American Sniper posits him as the ultimate warrior.
The story of corporal Mark Wright is very different. What happened on that particular day on Kajaki Dam was unique. This wasn’t an improvised explosive device, or a contact with the Taliban. Through Mark’s story we see the life of your average soldier, placed in an extreme event. No polemic or hand-wringing guilt. This was a bunch of guys caught in the wrong place in the wrong time, by the horrendous legacy of a prior conflict: a field of Russian-sown anti-personnel mines, ordnance abandoned like beer cans after a music festival. It was only a matter of time before they would be found, either by the military or, as is sadly often the case, local inhabitants once the armies have cleared out.
The bravery this group of lads displayed on that day was incredible. But it is their everyman charm that is really remarkable. None of them sees themselves as a hero: they’re just doing a job, which they pride themselves in doing well. That’s the recognition they seek. They aren’t 10ft Rambos itching to see action; they are the sons and daughters of your friends and neighbours.
So does the British public have a different relationship with its soldiers than the US does with theirs? We don’t seem to lionise our warriors; there will be no stadium-filling parades for those returned from . We mark our respect in a more quiet, reserved manner. Even the difference in how our film engaged with the UK’s Ministry of Defence compared to the Department of Defense in the US, is striking by comparison. It took 18 months to get a meeting in Whitehall, whereas the Pentagon read the script and responded within 48 hours.
We have, I believe, delivered a film accurately recounts the events of that day, but in a broader way affords the viewer a genuine insight into military life – and thankfully the critics agree. One of our proudest moments came when one of the veterans who worked with us saw a post on Facebook that called our film’s accuracy into question. He replied: “It’s as it was. I should know … I was there.”
- Kajaki: The True Story is released on DVD/Blu-Ray and VOD on 8 June. American Sniper is available on DVD now. Gareth Ellis-Unwin is the producer of Kajaki and The King’s Speech.