(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2002)
The other day I was watching Howard Hawks’ 1948 Red River – one of my favourite director’s best films. In the first half of the film, I always get lost in its feeling of authenticity – the stampede and the river crossing and all those epic views of the cattle traversing the desert. But of course, Red River isn’t “realistic” in the sense of aspiring to the pace and cadences of normal exchange. Hawks’ style was naturalistic in some ways, but he kept things within certain parameters of behaviour, generating a wholly distinct, recognizable stylization.
In Red River, it kicks in particularly in the last third, when a woman gets involved. She meets Montgomery Clift in the middle of an Indian attack, falls for him even though he’s brusque toward her, and by the end of the evening she’s in his arms. Then she sets the basis for a reconciliation between him and John Wayne. It’s scintillating as a study in character, but it’s clearly idealized, and in some ways it rubs oddly against the film’s more verisimilitudinous aspects. Rio Bravo, my favourite Hawks film, seems more unified – notionally a Western, but actually an almost abstract world where Hawks indulges his notions of character to the hilt.
Meaning of Right
A few days afterwards, I watched Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, and Red River came to mind in two ways. First, my wife had half-watched Red River, and when the Indians are circling the wagon train she remarked it looked like an old-fashioned view of natives – one that probably wouldn’t get put on screen today. Which may be true for the Indians, but Black Hawk Down’s portrayal of the Somalians as a similarly anonymous, gun-toting mob seemed awfully close to the same thing. And then, before going into battle, Josh Hartnett says how he “just wanna do it right today,” and I thought how much Red River cites the notion of being “good.” If you watch enough Hawks films, you figure out his meaning of “good.” The ambiguity of Black Hawk Down is whether you think it know the meaning of “right.”
Scott used to be regarded as a brilliant eye, whose visual mastery might compensate for lesser acuity in matters of character and storytelling. But the failure of 1492 and White Squall seemed to put paid to that phase, and he’s not reinvented himself as the ultimate Hollywood general – knocking out Gladiator, Hannibal and Black Hawk Down in less than two years. All three can probably be seen as pure hackwork. But if Black Hawk Down is hackwork, it’s such an accomplished example as to make the term meaningless.
The film, set in Somalia in 1993, is about a failed military mission – a group of mostly young Americans in Humvees and helicopters fly into the centre of Mogadishu, to capture a bunch of warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid’s lieutenants. The mission goes astray almost immediately, leaving many of the Americans holed up, trying to hold back bloodthirsty waves of Aidid’s supporters – it’s a land where bread is scarce but guns apparently plentiful.
State of Hostility
It’s a superb recreation, exhibiting only minimal contrivance; it evokes the sad desolation of Mogadishu and the pounding chaos of battle with equal skill. But there may never have been a war film so unconcerned with the broader context, with the political and strategic rights and wrongs. The film has an unusually long series of captions at the start, fixing the time and place and the approximate state of hostility, and again at the end. But in between, we just get the event itself. To the film’s detractors, this is a key point of moral as well as artistic weakness. This is Rick Groen in The Globe and Mail:
“Without any surrounding context – without a deeper characterization of the men or a proper account of the politics that brought them there – we’re left to respond to the blood and guts viscerally but not emotionally. The edge of our seat gets a strenuous workout, yet our heart and mind go pretty much untouched…if this is artistry, it comes perilously close to the spirit and intent of propaganda – a paean to the triumph of soldierly will.”
Maybe…and yet, if the blood and guts attains such realism, what artistic prodding should we need in order to respond emotionally? Isn’t our reason for grieving inherent in what’s being shown? Maybe that sounds like moralizing on my part, but I think it’s conceivably an artistic strategy by Scott.
Triumph of will
I started wishing he had gone even further with this – that the film was an even more aggressively self-contained, claustrophobic experience. It still has many of the trappings of the conventional war movie, albeit downplayed. There’s the motley bunch of recruits (although the film is mostly reticent about their backgrounds), the theme of naivete and bluster receiving a harsh wake-up call (at the start, the men are so nonchalant about the mission that they leave behind standard pieces of equipment), the contrast between the turmoil on the frontline and the general in his high-tech bunker, the pep talks and one-liners (“It’s what you do right now that makes a difference”). Saving Private Ryan contained two or three magnificent sequences, and a lot of mundane padding. Black Hawk Down sharply reduces the mundanity ratio, but it doesn’t find a new vocabulary of war – it doesn’t have the grand vision and shocking introspection of Apocalypse Now (but then, I query how “realistic” that film really is) or the troubled poetry of The Thin Red Line (ditto). I think it might have got there, had it taken its approach even further – to the point where character and personality might virtually disappear completely.
As it is, as I mentioned, character and personality disappear only among the Somalis. This too might have been a persuasive artistic strategy, if Scott didn’t sometimes seem to be personalizing them – through shots of children carrying guns, or in which a face is picked out of the crowd (usually just before being blown away). And a scene in which a captured soldier is interrogated, providing his captor the most dialogue of any Somali in the movie, may be the most clichéd in the picture. This aspect of the film ends up seeming confused and a little opportunistic.
The brutal reality leaves many of the Americans dead and serves as a rite of passage for the others. I suppose that amounts to the “triumph of soldierly will” in Groen’s phrase, but what is that really saying? Ultimately, Black Hawk Down illustrates the limits of placing so much store on authenticity. I expect the film can be read to support whatever preconception the viewer brings to it. Maybe that’s an artistic evasion by Scott, but it’s sadly not untrue to its subject.