Sunday, 2 December 2007


More reviews of films from Brighton’s CineCity festival. A ‘middle’ half might sound like the Hollywood exec who wanted to make the fourth film in the trilogy. But the reviews seemed to be getting longer and in more need of spacing out. They also seem to be appearing out of chronological order, for reasons unknown at time of press. Expect the final installment shortly.

BATTLE FOR HADITHA (Nick Broomfield, 2007)

At one point in his infamous Fahrenheit 911 (2004), Michael Moore shows some US troops in humvees - recklessly charging across the desert while listening to stadium metal, jocks in uniforms. Then later he shows us an injured trooper, invalided out of the army then left to rust. So are they bullies or victims? Both scenes might well be accurate in themselves. But Moore holds the two thoughts apart, keen not to confuse our poor little heads. As if by co-incidence Broomfield’s film contains almost exact duplicates of these two scenes. But his more courageous instinct is to push the two together as hard as he can, then resolves to film whatever sparks ensue.

At one point the marines may seem mere killers, executing bystanders when they can’t find the real insurgents. Yet at another we’ll recognise they’re mere kids sent to do an impossible job, and completely overstretched. In this way Broomfield’s undoubted liberalism can actually work to his advantage. It’s like he continually wants to ask “can’t we all just get along?” but knows we’re already far beyond that point. (In the post-showing Q+A he spoke of the “the entrenchment of suspicion and hostility”.)

My only criticism would be the (non) treatment of Al Quaida. Its certainly true Iraq has a long secular history, and that many insurgents are Iraqi patriots with little liking for Al Quaida beyond marriages of convenience. But here we only seem to see Al Quaida through their eyes, as sinister shadowy figures. Yet if the motives of the US top brass can be rendered explicable, surely so can theirs. Of course some will suggest this might risk engendering sympathy for their fanaticism, when the precise opposite is more likely true.


Keen to take in as much as I could of this retrospective after recently seeing Guests’ splendid direction of The Quatermass Xperiment (see my comments here) I managed to see (in descending order of importance) The Day the Earth Caught Fire, Jigsaw and Hell is a City. As Steve Chibnall pointed out in his excellent introduction, all three share Guest’s trademark approach to filming thriller material in documentary style - real locations, deep-field photography, overlapping dialogue etc. – which generates a kind of best of both worlds effect, dramatic yet not distanced by feeling unreal.

With it’s global warming theme telegraphed in the title, Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) night sound highly contemporary. However, here the earth first tilts on its axis then heads towards the Sun. The melting ice caps are even specifically ruled out as geologically insignificant! Though the ecological catastrophe angle is interesting, it’s actually very much a Cold War era film. It feels poised between the post war shock-of the bomb films such as the Boulting's Seven Days to Noon (1950) and the world-weary apocalypse cynicism of later Sixties films like Planet of the Apes (1968). The problems start with the Soviets testing a bomb at the North Pole and the Americans the South, neatly giving themselves joint responsibility. There’s even a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rally. (Though the 'beatnik riot' scene is more memorable due to being sheer bonkers!) But perhaps the most significant moment is enabled by the flashback structure. We cut between our reporter sitting alone in an empty newsroom, waiting to see if the world will end, to the pre-disaster newsroom – teeming with life and incident.

The weakness of the film is the emphasis placed upon the hackneyed romance subplot. Unusually the journalists in the film remain journalists throughout, reporting on events rather than putting down their notebooks and heroically coming to shape them. (Journalists in films are normally all Clerk Kents itching to become Superman.) The authorities fix the world’s problems with (yes really) another bomb to correct things, while the Daily Express merely file this as a story. The romance subplot therefore gives the jaded reporter protagonist a journey, finding a reason to live just as life seems most precarious (etc).

But it would have been far more effective if the film had pushed in the other direction, towards an greater documentary feel. (As in Jigsaw where we never see the policemen’s private lives, but only hear them reported in conversation.) Interestingly the film was originally intended to end openly, with two editions sitting ready to print (‘Earth Saved’ vs ‘Earth Doomed’), but a more feelgood ending was imposed. (Complete with church bells.) An ending which somewhat jars with the running commentary throughout the film on how foolish our leaders are, or the emphasis on their boys-club secrecy.

Jigsaw (1962) is a splendid police procedure thriller making fine use of its period Brighton setting. Apart from a nonsensical denouement, its only drawback is its salacious tone. We contrast the clean-living policemen with the sexually deviant suspects who make them “want to take a bath”. Ultimately we are expected to act like the neighbour washerwoman who spies upon the victim, decrying her antics while eager to learn more about her.

The difference between Jigsaw and Hell is a City (1960) is all in the name. While in Jigsaw we watch the police’s detective work, laborious and leading down blind alleys but always relentless, Hell is a City is much more of a melodrama - as if attempting to fight Hollywood on its own terms. In the dramatic but unlikely entanglement of relationships the police hero not only went to school with the villain but even launches into a shootout with him in the finale. (This being Britain, he has to borrow a gun.) But the melodrama also had something of the Victorian about it, with a villain seemingly modelled on Bill Sykes.

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