On September 6th, 2006, a mortar unit from 3rd Battalion, 3 Para, defending the Kajaki dam over the Helmand River in Afghanistan, spotted an illegal road block set up by the Taliban. The enemy were too distant for the unit’s sniper, Lance Corporal Stuart Hale, and to call in an airstrike would have caused civilian casualties, so Hale set out with two other paratroopers to get close enough for his sharpshooting talents. En route, Hale walked into an old Soviet minefield which had not been marked on their maps and lost his leg.
Hale survived, but by the time he and his comrades were rescued four hours later, another six men were seriously injured, two other losing legs, and one, Corporal Mark Wright, his life.
In that time their actions, in what can only be described as a combination of blindfold chess and Russian roulette conducted under a burning sun, warranted a George Cross (the award for the ‘greatest heroism’), two George Medals (for ‘acts of great bravery’) and the Queen’s Gallantry Medal (‘exemplary acts of bravery’). The absence of the Victoria Cross is telling: it is only awarded for valour in the face of the enemy. The Taliban had quickly evaporated into the wilderness, and the only enemy these men faced were the residues of a previous war in that torn place. That, and the ill-equipped incompetence of those above them in the chain of command. They were, in a sense more literal than poetic, killed by war itself.
The first-time director Paul Kakis and screenwriter Tom Williams have attempted, and largely succeeded, in their dramatic reconstruction of these events to turn the laws of tragic art on their head. There is no redemption in this story, although there is heart-wrenching camaraderie and gut-wrenching courage, but certainly no catharsis, no purgation of the dark emotions. The viewer is left, if anything, wounded. And that was the film-makers intent.
This reviewer watched it at the invitation of writer – Tom Williams has been a friend since 2010 – at a charity premiere alongside an audience of decorated veterans from that conflict, including many of the survivors of the incident itself. The film has no soundtrack, but my screening did: the harrowingly hoarse and unstable breathing patterns of one veteran behind me.
I don’t think I have ever seen a more gruesome representation of war, and given that the entire incident centres on misadventure, miscommunication and collateral damage, the pointlessness of it all leaves one wrung out and jaded. Like the soldiers on the screen, acted by an exemplary cast, the final appearance of the extraction helicopters, and the end of the film which is largely in real-time, is greeted by the watcher with a sotto voce ‘thank God’. (The first helicopter to arrive had no winches, attempted to land, and ended up detonating more mines, leading to the fatality and other injuries.)
If there is such a thing as an apolitical, indeed existentialist film about the horror of war, it is this. The most striking shots of all are of the dozen men in that field seen from the perspective of other members of the regiment watching from the crests of surrounding hills, defending their colleagues from hostile forces that never materialise, all the while hearing their brothers-in-arms scream, then weep, then laugh, then sing in an attempt to maintain morale and ward off shock and despair. All the while they stand like sentinels, unable to help, an audience looking on in horror.