For a nation with an extraordinary cache of war film to its credit, there is a noticeable dearth of British movies dramatizing the conflicts of recent years. In fact, there have been none for over thirty years. During the fifties and sixties, there was a glut of truly great films made about World War II. The Great Escape, The Dam Busters, Where Eagles Dare and The Bridge over the River Kwai are just some of the cinematic classics from that era.
They were unabashed in their celebration of what the film-makers saw as “British” qualities; stoicism, valor, courage and camaraderie, all served with a large dose of sardonic black humor. Those qualities continue to exist in the Armed Forces, and heroism is an everyday occurrence in the hell hole that is Helmand Province; and yet, it is no longer popular to honor those attributes. This is partly to do with the lack of public support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which many were opposed to. There was an entirely different mood about the second World War when patriotism was widespread and conscription meant that the war pulled in men and women to serve outside the traditional military.
Wars continue to be fought and soldier’s lives are lost or ruined every day, all in the defense of the nation, yet there is a cultural anxiety about the notion of courage. An uneasiness has set in, some put it down to the zeitgeist of “political correctness” whereby doubts about the necessity for recent wars affects a willingness to finance films that tell those stories. This is a peculiarly British problem. America seems to have no hesitation in honoring its heroes, and a spate of excellent films have connected audiences to the truths and horrors of what the military have endured on their behalf. The Hurt Locker, Black Hawk Down, Three Kings and Zero Dark Thirty have all taken on the challenge of making films about war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet in Britain, in the years post-1945, any storytelling about the many wars since then have been told on the small screen. Screenwriter Tom Williams, with the previous and highly unrelated credit of Chalet Girl, has decided to buck this trend. He has written a new screenplay about the bravery of the British paras in a particular incident which happened near the Afghan village of Kajaki in 2006. He thinks it is time Britain got back into the business of making war film.
However, the traditional funding bodies do not agree.
None of the conventional sources of film finance wanted to touch it. For whatever reason, the British film industry is antipathetic to the idea of a modern war film. The typical response was that is was a great project but “too hot to handle.” The uncomfortable reaction is indicative of a reasonable sensitivity; balance and “telling both sides of the story” is indeed desirable. Yet this attitude ironically diminishes the side of the story which represents the dramatic virtues of courage and grit. These qualities are what made the old war films so watchable, and the reason they are still loved today.
This is odd in the context of the massive mood of public support for the UK military, encouraged in huge part by the phenomenally successful charity Help for Heroes. Help for Heroes tapped into a national desire to show support by establishing a forum to assist the wounded in the current conflicts. Record donations flooded in and the charity has gone from strong to stronger, working with the other military charities to build up a raft of services to the wounded and their families.
Now Help for Heroes are getting behind the crowd-funding effort to launch the production of Kajaki. In their press release, the charity say that Kajaki “puts the audience where we’ve put our fighting men and women for the past twelve years: face to face with deadly peril in the company of their friends.”
The story behind the production of Kajaki is becoming a rather valiant one unto itself, garnering increasing support from all quarters through its Facebook page and indiegogo crowdfunding appeal. If the film industry does not want to see it made, it would appear that the public really does.
Britain should not be shying away from making war films. Kajaki aims to be the first in many years to admit and admire real courage in the context of current-day conflict and put it up there on the big screen.
By Kate Henderson