The other night I watched “Lone Survivor” (2013), where Mark Wahlberg plays Marcus Luttrell, a US Navy SEAL out to capture Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. As the title suggests (so I take no responsibility for the following being a spoiler), things go wrong and all but one of the team is killed in all-out battle in the Afghan hills. It’s a powerful, and grim, film, based on the real-life story of the failed Operation Red Wings.
Out on the operation, the team are faced with an impossible situation. Having been discovered by three unarmed goatherders, and with no means of communication due to the terrain, the team’s only real choice is to let the goatherders go and head into the hills to get back in contact with their headquarters and arrange to be picked up. As they suspected, one of the goatherders alerts the Taliban, and before long they are surrounded in the Afghan mountains. There’s no denying that those outnumbered lads were up against it, and it’s heartrending watching their acts of heroism and comradeship as they get picked off one by one. It’s more than heartrending, it’s horrific. It comes close to Saving Private Ryan in terms of the harrowing war movie genre – of which I have avoided much experience.
The movie left me with some conflicting emotions. In terms of the human story – the human tragedy – that was the death and suffering of these young guys, with all their hopes and dreams and love and family taken from them, there is no question about how you will feel. But the war in Afghanistan is more complicated than four young men outnumbered on a mountaintop. It’s so complicated that I know I don’t understand it well, so it’s not what I’m commenting on here; the purpose of this writing is around different representations of stories, particularly in terms of perspective.
I was recently reading George Orwell’s essay “Boys’ Weeklies”. In it, Orwell points out his belief in the importance of fiction in framing young people’s (and indeed older people’s) values, morals and expectations of life. He uses as a foil for this the case of contemporary boys’ weekly magazines – which are almost exclusively published by two media conglomerates, Amalgamated Press (which after some rebranding and acquisition ended up being part of IPC Media, part of Time Inc) and D.C. Thompson & Co. still going strong. According to Orwell, both organisations were run on conservative principles, something that strongly comes through in the narrative and rhetoric expressed in the boys’ weeklies.
Orwell’s key point here is that the perspective of the writer (or film producer, director etc. – anyone involved in the creative process) will impact upon what “moral” is implicit in the story. As Orwell says:
“…the stories within Hotspur and Modern Boy are not Conservative tracts; they are merely adventure stories with a Conservative bias… In the last years of the Spanish monarchy there was a large output in Spain of left-wing novelettes, some of them evidently of Anarchist origin… In get-up and style of story they were very similar to the English fourpenny noveletter, except that their inspiration was ‘left’. If, for instance, a story described police pursuing Anarchists through the mountains, it would be from the point of view of the Anarchists and not of the police.”
This passage rather stuck with me while I watched “Lone Survivor”. While I in no way sympathise with the Taliban’s treatment of anybody, or their beliefs as far as I understand them, I am acutely aware that, as I set here in my European life I am exposed solely to other people’s interpretations of what is happening around the world – in Afghanistan and beyond – which are encumbered with these other people’s biases. Of course it’s something of which one is painfully aware in terms of news media reportage – accusations levelled at the BBC over biassed coverage of climage deniers springs to mind – but in fiction it is less obvious, and can often result – Orwell would argue, and I would agree – in far more deeply ingrained assimilation of the bias in the persons consuming the media. I’d argue it’s safe to say that the majority of films consumed in the US and Europe originate in the US – or rather that in the aforementioned places, more people watch more films from the US than elsewhere. And with these films comes an ideological undercurrent that, in terms of sexism, societal values, and glorification of the ideal of the individual hero, has bothered me for some time.
So, I’m off to write an adventure story set in modern day London, featuring a communist protagonist in a love affair with an anarchist who work as part of a massive community towards providing locally grown food. Or something. And then, obviously, I’ll make it a massive box office hit.