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Black Hawk Down - looking behind the Hollywood war machine



Feature by: Jack Foley

IT MAY come as some surprise to find Hollywood returning to war so soon after the events of September 11, 2001. But one only has to look at the forthcoming schedule to find film companies lining up to get back into battle. Fox is set to lead the way with Behind Enemy Lines, a Kosovo-based movie based on real-life events, while following closely behind will be Columbia Tristar with Black Hawk Down.

In their bomb-ridden wake are the likes of the Bruce Willis World War Two drama, Hart's War, the WWII love story, Charlotte Gray, Mel Gibson's Vietnam epic, We Were Soldiers, and John Woo's eagerly anticipated World War Two actioner, Windtalkers, starring Nicolas Cage. All carry big name stars and big name producers and most, if not all, went into production long before the events of September.

That they have emerged, post Twin Towers, unscathed says a lot about America's current need to find some sense of heroism; to reaffirm its position as a world leader capable of producing an elite military fighting machine which can ride into any country and save the day. Certainly, in the case of Behind Enemy Lines (starring Owen Wilson and Gene Hackman and which has already opened to a healthy Box Office), that's what they are going to get.

But several of the forthcoming war movies might not be as generous in their depiction of US military bravado or involvement in other conflicts. Certainly, in We Were Soldiers, a group of teenage US soldiers will find themselves brutally ambushed by the Vietcong, while in Black Hawk Down, Ridley Scott's unflinching depiction of the events in Mogadishu, Somalia, on the afternoon of October 3, 1993, the heroism on show comes at great cost and against huge adversity.

It may comes as a surprise, therefore, to report that Black Hawk Down is co-produced by Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer, the man behind Pearl Harbor and the cinematic excess it constituted. But, for both Bruckheimer and Gladiator-helmer Scott, the challenge in making Black Hawk Down came in presenting audiences with an insight into modern day combat not previously seen on the Big Screen.

It also attempts to answer the question of why men, some as young as teenagers, would risk their lives for the sake of others in battles which they know nothing about.

And it is notable for daring to expose the disaster that the Somalian incident became. For the record, American troops were first dispatched to the country by George Bush snr in late 1992, as part of a United Nations mission to bring food and peace to a war-ravaged land. On the afternoon in question, a unit of elite Rangers, using Black Hawk helicopters as support, went in to capture two senior advisers to warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid.

The mission was supposed to take less than an hour, with shots fired, but resulted in one of the bloodiest conflicts the US military has been involved in since Vietnam. Two helicopters went down, over 100 Rangers were ambushed and 18 servicemen died. Up to 1,000 Somalian militia also lost their lives. A fire fight is considered long in modern warfare at 13 minutes. The events in Mogadishu lasted a colossal 18 hours.

Scott, to his credit, captures what it must have been like for the men on the ground, even though he is certain to face some criticism for his less than gratifying depiction of the Somalians.

But Tom Matthews, air commander in Somalia during the operation, who got a birds eye view of the battle, believes the film is successful in capturing the plight of the US soldiers. His brief, as adviser on set, was to make the film an "accurate representation of the heroism, valor and action that was performed on that day".

And Ewan McGregor, one of the stars of the movie, who trained at Fort Benning for a week prior to filming, also feels it is "a very important story", explaining: "We never see what is required of soldiers in a modern day, urban fighting situation and I think, after seeing Black Hawk Down, we absolutely do know, really truthfully, what it is like."

He was also struck by the sense of pride which existed at Fort Benning for not only the soldiers who died on that day, but those who also fought there, and went on to say: "It became important to do them justice. If we were merely running around being Hollywood-y soldiers, we would have been disrespectful to them. It became a much more serious task as soon as I sensed that."

Scott is keen to impress that he wanted to bring in the presence of the Somalians as well, showing their capability in the field as well as the way in which they conducted themselves in business and through their military commanders. And he was not put off by the events of September 11, believing the movie to be "totally relevant" given current events.

Ironically, the events at Mogadishu forced the Clinton administration to pull US forces out of Somalia the following day. It also forced a serious re-think over the deployment of US ground personnel in foreign terrain. Post September 11, that has changed again and the Rangers are back in action in Afghanistan. But whether Black Hawk Down will give a traumatised nation a greater insight into the role of the modern soldier remains to be seen.

The events depicted may be a little too real and too graphic for some, while the lack of any US 'victory' might be too much to take for others. Certainly, the makers went all out in striving for authenticity. As well as Fort Benning, McGregor, Josh Hartnett, Jason Isaacs and co were trained by Special Forces at Fort Bragg and Fort Campbell, learning hand-to-hand combat techniques, Ranger history and mentality and, in some cases, how to control Black Hawk helicopters. Scott also made extensive use of hand-held documentary style footage throughout the film to convey the confusion of the battle.

Certainly, Bruckheimer and co will be hoping that the Alamo story, re-constituting defeat as glorious and witnessing American fighting men giving up their lives in the face of overwhelming odds, will tap into a newfound patriotism amongst mainstream audiences. They even moved the film forward after September 11, because of its relevance to current events.

Bruckheimer, in particular, is confident this will be the case. He was taken by the story from an early stage, even before reading Mark Bowden's book, and he states, quite emphatically that "if, right now, we went in and got two of Bin Laden's key advisers, killed a thousand Taliban members and lost 18 men, it would be considered a success".

If that sounds typically gung-ho, then consider Pearl Harbor. But he may have a point and will be counting on audiences feeling the same. Certainly, Scott has shyed away from making it a Hollywood movie in which the good guys win and the bad guys lose. War is more complex than that, as the wider events surrounding September 11 and the subsequent action in Afghanistan suggest.

Maybe audiences will embrace the movie after all.

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