Monday, November 30, 2020

NOW STREAMING: Mosul (2020)


                    “Mosul” is currently playing on Netflix.  It is the latest from Joe and Anthony Russo of Captain America and Avengers fame.  It was directed by Matthew Carnahan in his debut.  He wrote “World War Z”.  “Mosul” was based on a New Yorker article entitled “The Desperate Battle to Destroy ISIS” by Luke Mogelson.  This film is the first international film in the Iraqi dialect.  It was filmed in Morocco with a cast from the Middle East and North Africa.  Most were unknowns, but Suhail Dubbach (who plays Major Jaseem) was a well-known actor in Iraq before the overthrow of Saddam.  The cast was put through a three-week boot camp.

                    In 2017, an odd coalition of anti-ISIS forces attempted to take back the city of Mosul.  In the coalition was the Nineveh SWAT team that had worked in the city before its fall in 2014.  A flyover reveals that the city was destroyed in the fighting.  At this point, ISIS is in the process of evacuating the city.  The SWAT team is attempting to kill any Daesh (the Iraqi name for ISIS) still in the city.  The movie opens with them rescuing a pair of policemen who are besieged by Daesh gunmen.  Major Jasem recruits the younger of the two.  Kawa meets the qualification of either having been wounded by Daesh or having lost a loved one.  Kawa is the cherry who will have to earn the respect of the hardened SWAT members.  The unit starts with 12, but it is clear early on that this will be a “who will survive?” movie.  But it is not a last stand or a lost patrol movie.  They are not lost, but they are constantly moving through the rubble.  They have a “mission” that they will not let Kawa, or us, in on.  As they move, they encounter some of the other forces in the coalition and duel with Daesh. 

                    The movie covers a few hours in one day.  It does not attempt to retell the Battle of Mosul.  It concentrates on a small group of Iraqis who are personally committed to liberating their city.  But they are mainly motivated by revenge.  They and their foes give no quarter.  It is hard to tell at the start if they are any different than Daesh, but the movie is clearly an homage to the Nineveh SWAT team.  Although only Jasem and Kawa are developed as characters, the other men are typical of a gritty small unit movie.  They are battle-weary and sometimes question orders.  There is a rough camaraderie.  Jasem is the most fascinating.  He is a father figure for his men and really cares for them.  He has a gruff exterior and can be ruthless, but he does not fit the one-dimensional martinet stereotype from most Western war movies.  On the other hand, Kawa goes from naïve cop to hard core avenger too quickly.  It’s the only weak characterization in the unit.  The cast is solid, especially Dubbach. 

                    Is it a war movie?  I would say yes.  Although it tells the story of a police unit, they are participating in house-to-house fighting in a war.  They do move like a SWAT team and the boot camp must have concentrated on that type of training.  The combat is intense, but not combat porn.  It is episodic as the movie takes time for exposition and humanizing incidents.  At one point, they watch a soap opera.  The combat scenes break no new ground.  There is no slo-mo and it is not graphic.  It is intimate as the camera takes us down the alleys with them.  It is realistic in its depiction of the chaotic nature of a counterinsurgency in an urban environment.  Action breaks out suddenly and the deaths are random and unpredictable.  There is some FUBAR as at least one death is from friendly fire.  The enemy is faceless and there is no central hissable villain as you commonly find in these movies.  However, although the men do make some cracks about America’s role, it is easy to root for these guys and it is easy to feel empathy, although hard to imagine what a situation like that would be like.

                    As far as accuracy, I read the article and the screenplay appears to be based on it, rather than an adaptation of it.  The article has the Nineveh SWAT team playing a role in the liberation of Mosul, but does not mention any mission as depicted in the movie.  In fact, being a SWAT unit, the men are not really geared for taking neighborhoods, as they are assigned to do.  The movie forgoes the lack of success the unit had.  It does a better job portraying the men as the resilient victims of a sectarian civil war.  It also does a good job showing the casualties they had to overcome.  It is great at putting the unit in action movie situations, but as entertaining as the scenes are, they are only loosely related to the incidents in the article.

                    The movie is certainly watchable and a must-see for war movie fans who have Netflix.  There are plenty of mindless shoot ‘em ups streaming.  “Mosul” is set apart from most because it does not try to get the entire male demographic.  Teenage boys will probably not like it.  It may not realistically chronicle the team’s participation in the battle, but what happens feels real and you will care about Iraqis fighting for their country.  Maybe after the can of worms America opened up, we should see the victims trying to clean up the mess like an American hero would.



Sunday, November 29, 2020

CONSENSUS #1. Zulu (1964)


SYNOPSIS: "Zulu" is a British movie about the Battle of Rorke's Drift.  The battle took place during the Anglo-Zulu War and was an Alamo-like last stand by a small British unit.  The unit withstands numerous assaults by the much larger enemy force.

BACK-STORY:  “Zulu” was released in 1964 and was so successful that it not only resurrected the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, but molded the modern image of it.  Myth became reality in a way similar to John Wayne’s “Alamo”.  The film was a labor of love for Stanley Baker.  The movie was directed by the blacklisted Cy Endfield.  After the House Unamerican Activities Committee branded him a communist, he moved to England to continue his career.  The movie was filmed on location in South Africa.  700 blacks were used as extras.  Many of them were descendants of the Zulu who participated in the battle.   So many had never seen a movie that Endfield screened an old Gene Autrey film for them.  Because of apartheid, they could not be paid so Endfield let them keep the cattle.


1.  In 1958, historical writer John Prebble wrote an article about the Battle of Rorke’s Drift entitled “Slaughter in the Sun”.  An advertising executive Douglas Rankin read the article and commissioned Prebble to write a screenplay.  Cy Endfield was living in England and interested in moving up from B movies and commercials.  He approached Stanley Baker, who he had made four movies with.  Baker had started his own production company to get independence from the studio system.  Baker was thrilled with the heroic depiction of Welsh soldiers in the battle.  The focus on the Welsh was exaggerated in the movie.  Of the 122 defenders, only 32 were Welsh. 

2.  The soldier extras were portrayed by members of the South African National Defense Force. 

3.  The Zulu king Certshwayo (credited as Cetewayo in the film) was played by Prince Mangosuthu Butelezi, his great grandson.

4.  Most of the Zulu actors had never seen a movie, so a screen was set up and they were shown a Gene Autry western.  This was appropriate because “Zulu” was akin to a western.  The warriors laughed when they saw Autry singing while riding on his horse.  According to legend the Zulu actors were paid in cattle, but actually they were paid a wage.  The cattle may have been thrown in.

5.  James Booth (who played Hook) never went to South Africa.  His scenes were all in the hospital which was at a studio in England.

6.  Jack Hawkins was paid the most in the cast.  He was upset with his characters portrayal and with the fact that a lot of his work was cut.

7.  Richard Burton did the narration for free.  He had been considered for Chard, but his career was in a trough.

8.  Michael Caine was passed over for Hook, but he got the role in spite of a terrible screen test.  Endfield chose him because he did not have time to find anyone else.

9.  The cast and crew were surprised by the success and quality of the film.  Most of them were not aware how good the movie was until they saw it at the premiere.

10.  The dancers in the dance scene were professional dancers for Johannesburg nightclubs.

11.  Hooks elderly daughters walked out of the premiere because of the extremely inaccurate portrayal of him.

12.  Because of apartheid, the Zulu actors could not attend the premiere.  The movie was banned for black audiences due to the fear of the sight of white soldiers slaughtering Zulus might incite violence.

13.  It influenced Peter Jackson’s Battle of Helm’s Deep in “Lord of the Rings:  The Two Towers”.

Belle and Blade  =  N/A

Brassey’s              =  5.0

Video Hound       =  5.0

War Movies         =  5.0

Military History  =  #22

Channel 4             =  #8

Film Site                =  yes

101 War Movies  =  yes

Rotten Tomatoes  =  #49 


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The Battle of Rorke’s Drift took place during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.  The war was brought about because of British desire to expand its South African colony into Zululand.  They manufactured a threat from the Zulus as their provocation and used it as justification for an invasion.  King Cetshwayo wanted peace, but could not meekly accept his own overthrow and annexation of his land.  The movie does not explain the background to the war possibly because the British did not want to mar the feel-good aspect of such a sterling battle. 

                The allusions to the Battle of Isandlwana are accurate.  The British central invading column did get wiped out by 20,000 Zulu warriors.  However, King Cetshwayo did not follow this up with the attack on Rorke’s Drift as the movie implies.   The attack was the idea of his glory-seeking half-brother whose unit had not gotten to Isandlwana in time to participate.  In fact, the King had forbidden his forces to go on the offensive into British territory.

                The recreation of the hospital/supply depot is accurate.  It was leased by the British government from the missionary Witt, but his depiction is way off.  The real Witt was married with two young kids.  He was not a pacifist, nor a drunkard.  He supported British policies.  The Zulu king was not a parishioner of his.  He was not drummed out of the depot, but left voluntarily to see after his family.  His is not the only mischaracterization.  The most egregious is Hook.  He was not the malingering malcontent depicted in the film.  He was actually a solid soldier and a teetotaler.  His portrayal was so offensive that his daughters walked out on the premiere.  Bourne was actually very young for a Colour Sergeant and also slight in stature.  The doctor was not cynically anti-war and earned his VC by leaving the hospital to tend the wounded on the front lines.  Not to mention the unit itself is misidentified.  In the movie it is identified as a Welsh regiment when in reality it was not predominately Welsh.

                Some of the incidents are close to reality.  The native levies did flee before the battle, but not because of the rantings of Witt.  They were actually led out by their British officer who was subsequently court-martialed.  The Boer cavalry that refuses to augment the defense actually stayed for the early festivities, but left after its cavalry carbine ammunition ran low.  Chard was actually appointed to command by the unit’s captain before he left.  This was partly based on seniority, but he was commissioned three years before Bromhead (not three months as the movie says;  Chard assumed command partly because Bromhead was very hard of hearing and not the type to inspire a desperate defense).  They did not disagree on strategy and Chard actually favored a withdrawal.  It was Acting Assistant Commissary Dalton who pointed out that a small column slowed by wounded would be easily caught and wiped out.

                Although Adendorf accurately describes the Zulu tactic described as “the horns of the beast”, the movie does not depict them using this tactic.  This might truly reflect the battle as the attacks are best described as piecemeal.  The Zulu spear called an iklwa (the sound it made when being pulled out of a wound) is authentic.  It was a variation of Shaka’s assegai.  They also carried the cow-hide shields shown in the film.  Unfortunately for realism, this force would not have had access to looted British rifles to snipe with.  Like most Zulu units, they would have had an assortment of inferior guns.  Five of the seventeen British deaths were from gunfire.  The British weaponry is accurate.

                The battle itself has some problems.  There is no evidence for the opening “cannon fodder as intelligence gathering” gambit.  The assaults were more consistent and not as easily differentiated as in the film.  The assault on the hospital, its defense led by Hook, and its subsequent burning are pretty close.  They did cut holes through the walls to go from room to room.  The last survivors exited from a window, not out the back door.  Strangely, the movie foregoes the suspense of the consistent night attacks which tapered off after midnight.  They ended around 2 A.M. and the subsequent gunfire was over by sunrise thus ending the battle.  There was no climactic charge after dawn.

                It will not surprise that there was no sing-off.  Plus the song would not be the unit anthem for another two years.  It goes without saying that the Zulus did not salute the courage of the Europeans.  As far as why they withdrew, a final decisive assault was abandoned with the approach of a relief force (“the cavalry was coming”).  By the way, the movie leaves out the post script of the British dispatching any wounded Zulu.  On a similar note, the British actually lost only 17 dead in the battle – the movie gives the impression it was quite a bit more.

OPINION:   “Zulu” has many strong elements.  The set is authentic and the scenery is amazing.  The movie was filmed in a national park which, although hillier than the real locale, certainly added to the visuals.  The music by John Barry is used sparingly, but effectively.  Some scenes have little or no background music.  A good example is the opening attack which is allowed to build without music.  The cinematography is outstanding.  It’s old school without the modern pizazz, but you are in the thick of the fighting.  The acting is excellent.  Jack Hawkins chews the scenery a bit, but everyone else controls himself like a proper British soldier would.  Baker, Caine, Booth, and Green are standouts.  The most remarkable performances are by the Zulu extras.  They are naturals.  That Gene Autry movie must have really done the trick.

                The movie gets the small things right.  The soldier behavior is true to British 19th Century soldiers.  Their dialogue is not forced or cringe-worthy.  The camaraderie is evident.  There are several friendships that are highlighted.  The soldiers’ bond is apparent.  There is not a lot of humor, but then there is not a lot to laugh about.  There is also very little whining.  Hook is the only soldier who appears to be avoiding combat.  A bit unrealistic.  The movie does not play up the chasm between the upper class officers and the lower class enlisted which is often a theme in movies about the British army of that time period.

                The character development is well done.  The movie does a good job of fleshing out all of the VC winners and several more roles.  Each man is distinct (although name tags would have been nice).  The evolution of Chard from engineer building a bridge to combat leader is instructive.  There is a quiet moment when he goes from trembling hand while reloading his revolver to steadiness.  Of course, the most fascinating arc is that of Hook.  It’s a bit cliché, but it works.  He could have been a tedious character, but Booth does a good job making him a likeable rogue.  His swigging on the broken liquor bottle before fleeing the burning hospital is another nice touch.

                As a movie about a battle, “Zulu” is one of the best.  This is partly because it has few frills.  It concentrates almost totally on the battle and the men who fought it.  The tactics are realistic although some of them have a textbook feel to them.  In reality, it is doubtful the British used the variety the movie depicts.  That’s acceptable for entertainment purposes.  The action is intense and edge of your seat.  The deaths are swift and not melodramatic.  There are no death speeches.

                The movie is not without flaws.  I have already expounded on the historical inaccuracies.  One problem is the lack of background about what brought on the war.  The audience is treated to a fair treatment of the Zulu.  They are not demonized as the Indians were in most Westerns and they are shown as brave warriors, but it is not made clear that they were in the right.  We are manipulated to root for the Europeans instead of the natives fighting for their lands and liberty.  A related flaw is the lack of a Zulu perspective.  This is perplexing given that the movie opens in their village with an interesting take on their culture.

                In conclusion,  the ranking of “Zulu” at #1 is a bit of a surprise.  It is not a great war movie (as some claim), but it is certainly very good and accomplishes its mission effectively.  I am little uncomfortable with this.  As a war movie lover, I really enjoyed the movie.  But as a military history buff, I can see how the movie used a different medium to do in the 1960s what the British government used the newspapers to do in the 1870s.  Think about it – 11 Victoria Cross winners!  Assuming a Victoria Cross is equivalent to the Medal of Honor, it should take extreme bravery to be awarded one.  Not taking away from the defenders, but it would appear the British government was looking for a civilian morale booster to soften the Isandlwana disaster.  The movie does a similar job in glamorizing the imperial days of England.  Unlike its most obvious equivalent (Wayne’s “The Alamo”), the film does not recreate the myths, but instead actually creates the myths.