Battle of the war films

A still from the movie Kajaki
A still from the movie Kajaki 

In the UK and Commonwealth it is called Remembrance Day. In France and Belgium it is Armistice Day, and in America they call it Veterans Day (without an apostrophe, it seems). November 11 is a date set aside across the world to reflect on the sacrifices made by our armed forces in the line of duty.

On November 11, 2014, at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles, audiences got their first chance to see Clint Eastwood’s new film, 'American Sniper’, based on the life and death of Chris Kyle, the sniper with the most recorded kills in US military history. The following evening, at a gala premiere in London’s Leicester Square, a British alternative was unveiled in the form of 'Kajaki: The True Story’, telling the tale of a group of British paratroopers stranded in a minefield in Helmand Province in 2006. I researched and wrote the screenplay for Kajaki.

Both films are inspired by true events. Both depict the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both are steeped in military jargon and are unflinching in their depiction of battlefield injuries, delivered by sniper fire and anti-personnel mines respectively. Both largely leave the bigger, political, “Why Are We Here?” questions to one side, focusing instead on the ground-level view of the soldiers. Both films were praised by the critics, even as some commentators asked whether it was too soon to be telling these stories. American Sniper was nominated for six Oscars, Kajaki for a BAFTA.

Those are some similarities. Here is one difference. One of these films has made over half a billion dollars at the global box office. Kajaki has made, well, less. This week, both titles are released on DVD and online in the UK. At the time of writing, American Sniper is at number one on the iTunes movie charts, while Kajaki holds number one spot on the smaller, independent movie charts.

What do these two films tell us about how different societies represent the military experience on screen, and what different audiences want to see in a modern war movie?

Chris Kyle, the protagonist of American Sniper, was a decorated Marine, with over 160 confirmed kills and a best-selling autobiography to his name. He saw action in Iraq, where his role was to provide over-watch to patrols on the ground. During his four tours he got married and started a family, eventually becoming a household name both in America and in Iraq, where there was a bounty on his head. Three years after leaving the army, Chris Kyle was murdered at a gun range by fellow Marine Corps veteran Eddie Ray Routh.

Bradley Cooper in American Sniper

The Kajaki Dam sits at the head of the Helmand River and supplies hydro-electric power to much of the troubled province which carries that river’s name. On September 6, 2006, a patrol of British paratroopers, stationed on a nearby ridge to defend the dam against Taliban attacks, found themselves in a minefield in a dried-out wadi. One soldier – a sniper, as it happens – detonated a mine and his right leg was blown off. A rescue party entered the minefield and tried to clear a path to a helicopter pick-up site. In doing so, a second mine was detonated. When the rescue helicopter – a Chinook not designed for this role – arrived and hovered over the minefield, a third mine went off. Then a fourth.

Nearly five hours after the first explosion, the men were finally winched to safety. Many were injured, three men lost legs and one soldier, Cpl Mark Wright GC, lost his life.

Set against each other like this, the differences between the two films become stark. American Sniper is about the heroic individual, the super-soldier. Kajaki is about a unit of normal soldiers doing their jobs, becoming heroes by (ill) chance. American Sniper covers ten years, four tours, and both the professional and domestic life of its protagonist. Kajaki is one day, one incident. Kyle’s military exploits were generally seen to be 'successful’, while the Kajaki incident was clearly a catastrophe. American Sniper is about the US Marines taking on the enemy, the insurgents whom Kyle insists on calling “savages”. In Kajaki, the Taliban is barely seen, instead the “enemy” are legacy mines from the Russian conflict thirty years earlier. The enemy is war.

There is another important distinction. American Sniper is 'based on’ Kyle’s own book (which I have not read), and conversations the screenwriter Jason Hall had with Kyle before he died. Much has been written about how Kyle’s telling of certain events do not tally up with what actually happened, and Hall and Eastwood went even further, in developing fictional characters and situations not recorded in Kyle’s own book. This is understandable. Hollywood movies of a certain scale and budget have to give their audiences what they want, in this case a couple of juicy bad guys and some spectacular set pieces. To be fair to the filmmakers, they have never denied these extrapolations, but neither has it stopped the marketers from presenting the film as a true story.

The screenplay for Kajaki was developed through interviews with every man who was in that minefield, and with the family of the one soldier no longer able to speak to us. We felt from the start that the incident would work as a piece of cinema without alteration or embellishment, invented bad guys or shoot-outs. The bare facts of the day have a dramatic energy that is totally and terrifyingly organic. Our pursuit of the truth became all-consuming, to the extent that Kajaki is not based on or inspired by, it is the true story. (Alex von Tunzelmann’s excellent 'Reel History’ blog, which compares films with the real events on which they are based, gave Kajaki an A and American Sniper a D-.)

American Sniper shot for ten weeks, in Los Angeles and Morocco, with a budget of around $60m. Kajaki was filmed in just over four weeks, in fifty degree heat in Jordan, with approximately 1% of the money American Sniper had to spend. American Sniper had a famous director and a famous star. Kajaki had neither. American Sniper had the assistance of the US Department of Defense, who provide equipment and logistical support for many Hollywood films. The UK’s Ministry of Defence refused to support Kajaki, and we ended up having to digitally generate our Chinook helicopters.

American Sniper had six months of post-production time, Kajaki barely six weeks. American Sniper had the marketing muscle of Warner Bros behind it. Kajaki was self-distributed, backed by Vue Cinemas and a grass-roots campaign of supporters.

Without question, American Sniper is well-made, it looks great and is not without nuance. Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller are superb, even when passing an obviously plastic baby between themselves, and Clint’s confident hand behind the camera delivered some of his best work in years.

It is easy to see why America’s flyover states turned out en masse to watch an All-American hero slaughter some savages, to wrestle with his demons but come out with his faith, his patriotism and his marriage intact.

And, on a commercial level, the Kajaki team could have made some different decisions. We could have picked a more appealing title; Kajaki sounds like a foreign movie. We could have cast a star or two, but then the ensemble dynamic would have been broken. Did our uncompromising pursuit of authenticity put people off? The film begins deliberately slowly, to reflect the boredom of much military life. Should we have started with a bang? The military slang, the thick regional accents, the black squaddie humour, the graphic injuries, the lack of a soundtrack, the agonising wait for the rescue helicopter to arrive… None of these make the viewing experience for an audience any easier.

A Hollywood “True War Movie” like American Sniper works in comfortably familiar tropes. The movie star, playing the warrior hero. The love story. The redemptive journey. The sniper-fire set-pieces that bring to mind POV video-gaming experiences. The reassuring notion that good will triumph over evil, that civilisation will defeat “savagery”, that these are wars that can be won. Our British version takes away the security blankets. No stars. No budget. No vanquished enemy. No happy ending. I’m giving it a great sell, aren’t I? I mean come on, at least we could have picked a story with a happy ending. What are we, stupid? Did we even want to make a successful film?

Success is more than just box office, or indeed awards. Success can be a small film making a small profit. Success can be the soldiers who were actually in the minefield supporting the film, watching it and saying “Yeah, that’s how it was”. Success can be telling a new kind of story, about a new kind of warfare, taking the genre out of its safe haven and showing audiences that there is a choice.

What kind of happy ending do we see in the Middle East anyway, in the lives of our injured servicemen and women, in the lives of those they left behind? Do our convictions need propping up, or do they need challenging? Film-makers can choose to show what an audience wants to see, or what the film-maker wants them to see. Audiences can choose to be reassured, or to be unsettled.

Different ways of making films, different reasons for watching them. The choice is, as ever, yours.

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Source : telegraph[dot]co[dot]uk
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