Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2019-084
26 Sept. 2019
Review by Christopher R. Cook, University of Pittsburgh–Johnstown
Cinema and Unconventional Warfare in the Twentieth Century: Insurgency, Terrorism and Special Operations
By Paul B. Rich
New York: Bloomsbury, 2018. Pp. x, 264. ISBN 978–1–350–05569–8.
Descriptors: Volume 2019, 20th Century, War Films Print Version

Paul Rich has published extensively on insurgency and counterinsurgency, terrorism and warlordism.[1] In his newest book, he investigates how cinema has depicted unconventional wars. Classic (conventional) war films have reflected the concerns of their moment in time, while also fostering myths of national unity, patriotism, and traditional male heroism. Rich argues that filmmakers, like government authorities and ordinary citizens, have struggled to understand unconventional wars because they are, in the words of David Maxwell, "complex, violent, messy and difficult to control" (2). Insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists, and mercenaries do not conform to the tried and true tropes of early twentieth-century war films. These films have documented periods when national polities wrestled with decolonization, military and political failures, and unconventional enemies, revealing fault lines in historical memory and the effects of technological changes.


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Rich's purview extends to some eighty post-Second World War American, British, French, Israeli, and Italian films discussed in seven thematic chapters. He argues persuasively that, soon after World War II, British films about unconventional warfare conveyed both anti-communist messages and a sense of the decline of an imperial power in a rapidly shifting world (57). Some of these long-forgotten films, sometimes set in fictional or unnamed nations, dealt with the communist insurgency in Malaya (e.g., The Planter's Wife [1952], Windom's Way [1957], and The 7th Dawn [1964],[2] and the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya (e.g., Simba [1955]).[3] The 7th Dawn marked "an end of empire film with the message that the British are resolved to secure the colony's independence in an orderly fashion" (40). Though centered on a conventional love triangle story, the film was considered controversial at the time, even though it fails to accurately show the breadth of counterinsurgent resettlement programs. Such early decolonization films now seem stuck in the past. American audiences had little interest in British colonial counterinsurgency films. That said, John Wayne's Green Berets (1968) provides an interesting take on how the United States inherited France's colonial wars in Indochina.

The author also explores British films about special forces and special operations, best exemplified by The Guns of Navarone (1961)[4] which he finds "dated, with predictable acting styles and poor special effects. Its conventional masculine-oriented narrative reduced women to being, at best, silent and unreliable appendages or, at worst, treacherous informers" (61). Rich then makes deft comparisons with other films of the same period. He notes, for example, that the lesser known Five Branded Women (1960),[5] an ahead-of-its-time Italian-American production about a group of women branded as traitors in a Yugoslav town after they join the partisans (61).

Rich makes a revealing comparison of two films about the 1942 special operation that led to the assassination of the high ranking SS official Reinhard Heydrich in Prague: Operation Daybreak (1975)[6] and, forty-one years later, the joint Czech-British-French Anthropoid.[7] He argues that the former was a reflection of Hollywood's avoidance of Vietnam films in the 1970s and exaggerates the British role in the operation. Anthropoid, on the other hand, hews closer to historical reality by evoking the post 9/11 world of terrorism, both rogue and state-sponsored.

American special operations films reached their peak in the 1980s with the Rambo franchise and the Chuck Norris vehicles Missing in Action (1984) and the Delta Force trilogy (1986, 1990, 1991),[8] which "glamorized fictions divorced from serious military realities" (73). In reality, Rich posits, they were dealing with the Vietnam syndrome. Over time, the genre became more realistic and the masculine military action hero was left behind in Black Hawk Down (2001), Seal Team Six (2012), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and Good Kill (2014).[9] This "cerebral action movie" genre stressed the growing importance of intelligence and technology. The extraction of useful intelligence is the main driver of suspense in Zero Dark Thirty, while Eye in the Sky (2015)[10] mixes serious realism with more fantastical sci-fi tropes to suggest how advancing surveillance and drone warfare progressively eliminate the protracted kind of intelligence-gathering depicted in Zero Dark Thirty. The cerebral action movie is unlikely to go as far as suggesting that this technology is actually breaking down, as in Apocalypse Now (1979), but rather indicates that it has to some degree delivered us closer to the Terminator series. Robotic forms of war essentially deny human agency (97).

The author explains how French filmmakers struggled with the humiliation of the end of their country's colonial control of Algeria and Vietnam after having suffered devastating losses in the Second World War. American filmmakers, after mostly ignoring the Vietnam War in the 1970s, created a revisionist history featuring Sylvester Stallone's Rambo and Chuck Norris's Col. James Braddock. British filmmakers wrestled with issues of class and social order in a post-colonial world where French ideas of Jacobin universalism and fraternity "could all too easily slip into a form of cultural civil war" (154). Algeria was home to a million French settlers and the war caused domestic political crises that Britain and the United States escaped. Left-wing intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre sided with African independence movements, but right-wing nationalists keenly espoused French patriotism. Consequently,

the very sensitivity of the French veterans to public slights on their honor made it difficult for French cinema producers to release any major feature film dealing with the conduct of [France's] colonial wars, a genre that was never very prominent in French cinema. (178)

An American film, Lost Command (1966),[11] based on Jean Lartéguy's 1960 novel Les Centurions is the exception that proves the rule. In it, viewers follow the exploits of Lt. Col. Pierre-Noel Raspeguy (Anthony Quinn) in Vietnam and Algeria. In France, by contrast, films deemed critical of French colonial expeditions were often banned. Jean-Luc Godard's Le Petit Soldat (1963), Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers (1966), and even Lost Command, were victims of these French "memory wars" (169).

More recently, we have seen a cinematic reappraisal of the late colonial period. Pierre Schoendoerffer's nostalgic Dien Bien Phu (1992), produced with Vietnam's help, was "remarkable for its acknowledgement of a major French historical defeat" (170). Florent Emilio Siri's Ennemi Intime (2007) tries to be evenhanded in portraying atrocities in Algeria, harking back to French notions of fraternité: "this is an enemy with a human face … [with] many of the same values of French culture" (174). But bitter memories persist. Rachid Bouchareb's Algerian film, Hors la Loi (Outside the Law, 2010), with its portrayal of the Setif Massacres, sparked angry protests by the French right wing and former colons at its Cannes screening.

If films are cultural documents, western cinema has struggled to understand the enemy and convey what precisely insurgents were fighting for. British films have perpetuated "Orientalist stereotypes of Asians as either compliant servants or duplicitous schemers" (39), reinforcing a "romantic Tory imagery of the population" (56). In Lost Command, "insurgents … mostly conform to traditional cinematic stereotypes" (164), à la American westerns' tales of "settlers fending off hostile Indians" (48). Rich notes that Rambo and Missing in Action tap captivity narratives deeply embedded in the western genre, notably John Ford's The Searchers (1956) (76).

The author compares two films about the Sendero Luminoso: the Peruvian film, La vida es una sola (1993),[12] and John Malkovich's, The Dancer Upstairs (2002). The latter centers on the "cat and mouse" pursuit of a rebel leader (hiding upstairs in a dance studio) in the suburbs. But the film neither addresses the political dimensions of the Shining Path, nor even visits rural Peru. Beyond its leader Ezequiel, the Shining Path remains strictly one dimensional. But it is the Peruvian film that offers a rich assessment of the conflict and shows indigenous people as "neither silent, passive nor superstitious" (120).

Another sub-theme explored in the book is torture, a controversial subject in all periods. In Rome Open City (1945) director Roberto Rossellini wanted the torture scenes "to celebrate the triumph of human will as well as the moral impoverishment of the torturers" (101). In Godard's Le Petit Soldat, the actors even endured actual waterboarding rather than, Rich points out, the fake, melodramatic depiction of it in Battle of Algiers. But in the latter film, the French Colonel Mathieu gives a coldhearted rationale for the efficacy of torture, a point driven home when Ali's location is revealed by that method. The value of torture features prominently, too, in Zero Dark Thirty, which some have dubbed "torture porn" (91). Much as in Battle of Algiers, torture is integral to finding Bin Laden. Senators John McCain and Diane Feinstein criticized the film for glossing over human rights abuses.

Other topics discussed in the book include the mercenary subgenre in films like Dark of the Sun (1968) and The Wild Geese (1978),[13] as well as films on African warlords and child soldiers like Beasts of No Nation (2015).[14] One chapter concerns Israel and the reframing of siege warfare in films like Otto Preminger's Exodus (1960) and Steven Spielberg's Munich (2005) with its depiction of the raid at Entebbe.

Cinema and Unconventional Warfare in the Twentieth Century is not a book for casual readers. It presumes at the least a fair knowledge of film and its historical contexts. With that proviso, I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in military film studies or, more specifically, the connections between film and culture in unconventional wars. Paul Rich has also marked out starting points for future lines of inquiry in film studies.[15]

[1] He is editor of the journal Small Wars & Insurgencies.

[2] Dir. Ken Annakin, Ronald Neame, and Lewis Gilbert, respectively.

[3] Dir. Brian Desmond Hurst.

[4] Dir. J. Lee Thompson.

[5] Dir. Martin Ritt.

[6] Dir. Lewis Gilbert.

[7] Dir. Sean Ellis.

[8] Dir. Menahem Golan, Aaron Norris, and Sam Firstenberg.

[9] Dir. Sir Ridley Scott, John Stockwell Samuels, Kathryn Bigelow, and Andrew M. Niccol.

[10] Dir. Gavin Hood.

[11] Dir. Mark Robson.

[12] Dir. Marianne Eyde.

[13] Dir. Jack Cardiff and Andrew V. McLaglen.

[14] Dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga.

[15] Unfortunately, the book is rife with proofreading errors. Thus, we read that Rambo III (1988) is set in Myanmar (145), not Afghanistan. But Myanmar is the setting of Rambo IV. A minor mistake, but puzzling, considering how long US troops have been fighting in Afghanistan.

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