Missing in Action

I know writing is not everyones cup of tea, but the lack of British military films on tv is unforgivable and it's because of writing. We’re just going to move through this with no strings attached and talk about the way soldiers are portrayed in film – kit, character, war, and all that – and stir up some shit for the military side of Netflix, because if there is one thing soldiers have, it's a more hilarious and dramatic experience of life than some of these films have people believe.

I think one of the main reasons there is such a small genre of British military film on the screen is because films involving British soldiers are hard to write. That and lack of scripts, obviously. Sometimes our films make the blokes out to be absolutely unbearable rapists like in 28 Days Later. I’m just being loose here and I know there are some great flicks out there like Six Days, Kajaki, Death Watch, 1917, Dunkirk… anymore? Actually, not fucking really. I’ll discount the classics like A Bridge Too Far and Bravo Two Zero (which should be rebooted) because they belong to a different age and are eternally respected by all without my grovelling.

What I’m talking about here is the contemporary British soldier on the screen; what films will come next to pay tribute to the modern day British soldier? What next? Our Girl? That’s fine if you are a forty-five-year-old single mum of eight who likes to watch the archetypal female medic with mascara fire a rifle with her sights on back-to-front while casually developing a love life on the front line. Whoever was in charge of costume department for that show needs to have their fucking visual cortex ripped out. If a single chink in the costume armour is obvious then the whole illusion falls apart for us. It cannot be taken seriously. Respect for the character is lost and if you can’t respect the effort put into the characters’ appearance, then personally I hope they stand on a triple stacked anti-tank mine in the next scene and end the whole fucking film for me so I can go back and rewatch Platoon.

If the costume is not taken seriously then you have lost half the battle. It’ll pass for the average viewer of course, but that’s because they don’t know the difference and it’s not them you are trying to impress; it's us. It’s those who are analysing the details. Film people watch war films and subconsciously make war films like the films they have seen that have inspired them. This perpetuates bullshit and cliche characters. Kajaki nailed it, again, respect where respect is due, but it's one of only a few examples. When you see films about a platoon of hardcore, dejected, forgotten, undermanned, under-supplied British troops in a far out patrol base in Helmand, injecting pure Afghan heroin and led by an insane platoon commander where the roads are too heavily mined to escape, and the anti-aircraft threat is too ferocious for air to land… oh wait, there isn’t such a film. Why?

British troops are stubborn and stoic by training and nature even in their darkest moments and this seems hard to draw drama from when there is humour found even in death. American troops are far more emotional, like Americans in general, and therefore they have much more appeal to the general audience because emotions are what pull the heartstrings. War environment is easy to detail; the explosions, fighting, and landscape specifically, but character traits of the common British soldier not so much so... apparently. 

Every man I worked with during my time was unique in his own right. Some blokes were sex pests who raced home on a Friday to be cling filmed to beds and pissed all over by their girlfriends. Some became fitness freaks after long stretches of shitting all over their homes and waking up naked in ditches because they were drinking a bottle of vodka a night for nine years. I heard about blokes growing up in shipping containers with drug trafficking parents and were in the army because they had no fucking choice. A few didn’t even mind their wives being gang banged by platoons of Fijians while they slogged it out in some stinking shit-hole patrol base for six months. What is going on here? These are some very unusual issues and interesting characters. This is pure comedy. But on the other hand some blokes were deeply pious with rooms decked out with Christian paraphernalia, but were paradoxically ungodly in their frontline behaviour. This is pure drama, and an awesome internal character conflict which will have to be reconciled at some point in a story. Traits like these are rabbit holes within a character bio that could be entire stories in themselves and command such depth. 

What we need to do is modernise the presence of the British military on the screen because we have a plethora of strange, brave, intelligent, interesting, dangerous, and insane fucking men in those ranks. Let’s take Dan for instance, a half Iranian Para lad I knew who had an enormous and expensive cocaine problem and was formerly used as a guinea pig for new kinds of steroids in his regiment. After nine years of injections, weight lifting, and living in a highly charged environment of testosterone with the war-on-terror blokes, he had lost the hair on the top of his head and had developed a thick carpet of pubic hair over every other square inch of his body. But his strength was something alien in the gym. He abused himself so much that he would lay in bed every night trying to not have a heart attack. I’ll also add that he was addicted to masturbation and collected his semen in bottles. He didn’t even mind being caught or people knowing about his collection. What's going on there? Why not add that to a character on the screen? It could be hilarious. In fact, that it is how it needs to be treated. That’s how you generate the darkest of humour of the British soldier: by using the most extreme parts of his history for humour no matter how stark. 

Humour is the most vital ingredient to survive in the British ranks and film has got to start getting it right. It is the most important trait of all and is seldom done well on the screen because it can only be written by someone who has lived extensively with the people who were saturated in it day and night, year after year. It's a special humour – almost it's own language – that can withstand all adversity and if it is not done well then it comes across as fake. Or it is abandoned altogether and the dialogue becomes a mere verbal vehicle to segue into the next scene instead of using the moment to explore the depth of the character. Without the humour, the drama would be too overpowering, and on the screen that looks cheesy.

I write with Adam Gomolin at Inkshares and he presses that you’ve got to find the small moments in the back story of a character and show it, but not for long. If you know the characters then these moments can be devastating and deeply informative, because soldiers in films are constantly in some kind of drama, like steroid Dan for instance when he got blasted on cocaine and got a loan for fifty grand then went to live in Russia for a year on his fucking own. Then I was living with him in Baghdad while he did rotations trying to pay it off. What is going on in that man’s brain in a firefight? In his thoughts. We must find out for the sake of film. 

Cliche shots have to go. We all get "he's a good guy with kids" by now so let's calm the fuck down on the shot of a photograph of a family inside a dusty helmet – it's dead, so let's be creative with how we show longing for home. Finally, lets just quickly talk about a small moment that is memorable, and this example comes from the other side of the pond where they got it truly right.

Think of Captain Miller in the landing craft booming through the waves on route to Omaha Beach. The first thing you see of Miller in Saving Private Ryan is him unscrewing a water bottle lid with a trembling hand. It is a close shot and it reveals everything we need to know about that moment and what's going on inside that character. Immediately we should be terrified. Why? Can you remember never seeing that masterpiece? Imagine never having seen that film, Jesus fucking Christ. If you can imagine such a time then you won’t know what comes next; you don't know what is about to happen on that beach but that shaking hand is your first warning. The camera moves with the hand and we see his face. Then the two white stripes on his helmet. This is the man in charge and the first thing we saw was something vulnerable. The waves slam into the ramp. His men are puking. Then the call comes. Clear the ramp. Thirty seconds. And in contrast to his shaking hand, Miller delivers his first lines to prepare us for the opening scene

Portside stick, starboard side stick, move 
fast and clear those murder holes.

Boom. He has control but something is already up, and it is shown in less than twenty seconds.

At the end of that two hour and sixteen minutes of hell we see Miller's final shot of his hand, still and dead. Everything between those two shots is now immortalised. His character: a solid standard of a leader in a moral conundrum with a quaint history and a lot of death, friend and foe, in his wake. That shaking hand is the anxiety of never going home to his roses and wife. It's the continual loss of his men in combat. It's the responsibility of that. It’s the small moments like that which make him the standard in future we must reach with regards to portrayal of British soldiers. We must create our own modern day British Captain Miller, but we must also show the world people like steroid Dan, and how he longed to be home with his kids.



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