By John Stiller
No, they aren’t. No. No. No. No. I don’t think U.S. soldiers are just serial killers hiding behind the mask of Old Glory. Many Americans sacrificed a lot to fight and die in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11. (Google Pat Tillman if you’ve been living in a cave for the past ten years.) Yes, there are crazy sadists in the military, but that’s true for every army on the face of the Earth.
It’s with this in mind that I approach a controversial Turkish film about a recent war we’re all too familiar with in the Middle East.
It’s called Valley of The Wolves: Iraq, and is inspired by a real-life incident from the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Referred to as the “Hood Event,” a group of Turkish soldiers was detained by American forces as suspected insurgents. They were led away with hoods over the heads, leading to its moniker. In the West, no one really saw this as a big deal. In Turkey, the event received an insane amount of inflammatory media coverage, and the whole mess led to a major diplomatic row between Turkey and the U.S. It got so bad that even Donald Rumsfeld expressed regret about it.
Now to the movie itself. It opens with a recreation of the Hood Event (that is awkwardly staged and blocked). Dripping with venom and hypocrisy in every phrase he utters, American commander “Sam Marshall” walks on screen and mouths some pretentious rhetoric to justify what’s happening to the indignant Turkish soldiers. (He’s played by American actor Billy Zane, a man who specializes in one-dimensional villains. Ever see a little known film called Titanic?) The Turkish soldiers are outraged, but who cares? They’re not American!
This is the jumping off point for the rest of the film, which is, on a superficial level, a remake of Rambo. Alemdar, a Turkish intelligence agent, travels to Iraq avenge the “Hood Event.” He kills a lot of Americans, and at one point almost blows up an entire hotel (He only stops when the psychopathic Billy Zane shows up with a group of children. He tells Alemdar that if he blows up the hotel, he will blow up the kids along with everybody else. Alemdar then relents.)
The narrative then moves along in a particularly obvious fashion. Americans detain and kill more people. They are aided by the Kurds, who are portrayed as obedient Western puppets (this is almost certainly done because Turkey has been fighting a violent campaign by Kurdish militants for decades) Scenes abound that could be seen as simple-minded propaganda. And yet, when you look at what has actually gone on in Iraq and Afghanistan, many are based on real events. Captured insurgents suffocate in a crowded tractor trailer (this is loosely based on something that happened in Afghanistan). Americans break up and massacre civilians at a wedding (this is very loosely based on another incident in Afghanistan). Americans, laughing and drunk with power, strip suspected insurgents naked and pile them on top of each other while in an unnamed detention center (this incident requires little explanation, since we’ve all seen the real photographs of what happened at this unnamed detention center.)
Even the threat that Alemdar makes to blow up the hotel echoes an actual incident that occurred in the late 1940’s in the Middle East. (Type “King David Hotel Bombing” into Google to learn more).
Is this movie just propaganda designed to make everyone hate America? It could be viewed that way. What’s the best example of this? Well, here’s the insanely obvious one: there’s a subplot about a doctor played by another crazy American, Gary Busey. The reason he’s in Iraq is to harvest organs from insurgents to send off to Tel Aviv and New York so he can sell them and make a nice profit. Uh, what? Yes, our reasons for invading Iraq were complete and utter crap, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t one of them. (I don’t know much about medicine, but the way the organs are shown being harvested and shipped in this movie would probably make them worthless.)
But there’s actually much more going on here than what the surface reveals. The fact that Billy Zane’s character is named “Sam” is simplistic (Uncle Sam). Yet look at his last name. It’s “Marshall.” This echoes the Marshall Plan, the famous economic recovery program in which the United States invested millions of dollars in post-war Europe in 1948, most of which was still in ruins at that point. The meaning of the name is brought home in a late scene when “Sam Marshall” addresses a crowd of Iraqis, speaking to them about their economic future and how the U.S. there to “help them.”
Further evidence that this isn’t just a film designed to piss off potential terrorists upon entering an Al Qaeda training camp comes from three particular scenes. In one, an Iraqi woman whose husband has been killed by Americans approaches a respected community leader and tells him she wants to be suicide bomber for vengeance. He’s very clear with her: being a suicide bomber is morally reprehensible. He further explains that the death of even one innocent person in a bombing, whether by accident or not, is completely forbidden by Islam.
Want another scene? A group of Al Qaeda-inspired insurgents are preparing to cut off the head of a Western journalist and film it (yet another scene that echoes real life). Again, the local leader shows up. He stops them and tells them in no uncertain terms that what they are doing is completely wrong. Islam does not allow something this, no matter what rationalizations the terrorists might meekly offer.
How about this? Some America soldiers are driving a truck in which a bunch of suspected insurgents are locked in the back. One of the soldiers complains to his superior that the insurgents will probably suffocate. His superior stops and starts shooting holes in the side of the truck, killing many of the insurgents inside. He says he did it to provide them with holes so they could breathe. The soldier is horrified and says he’s going to report his superior for court-martial. His superior then kills the potential whistleblower abruptly. This is small, but does show that American soldiers can be human and will attempt to stop something that is obviously wrong.
These scenes prove the film isn’t just anti-American propaganda. It is an attempt to explore what America has done in Iraq and Afghanistan from outside the myopic view of the West (though even I agree that the Gary Busey subplot is really bad). It’s also trying to be an exciting action film. In the wrong hands, it’s very dangerous. But that could be said of innumerable American films.
Off the top of my head, here are a few to consider: The Green Berets. Rambo. Gunga Din. Red Dawn. Birth of a Nation. Lifeboat. The Sands of Iwo Jima. True Lies. Virtually every single film made before the late sixties that depicts the American Indian Wars. All of these films show our “enemies” to be cartoonish evil villains. They’re one-dimensional, and perpetuate stereotypes that further the Western belief that any one on Earth who doesn’t look like us is “uncivilized.” These people or “others” need the West to help them achieve progress, so they can look and act exactly like us. And if they actually complain or resist? Then it’s time to employ overwhelming military force to explain it them.
So, what’s going on here? Well, if Hollywood’s taught the rest of the world how movies should be made, then I guess the rest of the world has also learned that when you portray your enemies, whether in a film, a novel, or an evening news report, they need to be dehumanized and vilified. Because when you do that, you no longer see your enemy as human. They are then symbols of everything you hate in life. What happens then? Auschwitz. Uganda. Oklahoma City. My Lai. Sand Creek. New York City. Munich. Nanking. Abu Ghraib. Stalingrad. Los Angeles. There’s no limit to what people are capable of when they think this way.
Because of this, Americans and the West in general should see this film. Artistically, it has a lot of problems. I already mentioned the awkward staging and blocking. There’s also the dialogue, which is self-righteous and frequently states the obvious, smashing its point home on the audience with the force of a rubber mallet. A lot of the acting is wooden and uneven. Many of the American soldiers have garbled, inconsistent accents that make them hard to understand the villainous dialogue they spew. This list of problems is not comprehensive, but if this is all you can see, then you need to pay closer attention.
Here’s why people need to look past the film’s glaring artistic/technical errors: It’s important to look at the world through another’s point of view. Atticus Finch, one of the most revered characters in American literature, the exemplum of integrity, pretty much said that in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s the same thing as the popular adage about “walking a mile in another person’s shoes.” I admit my wording isn’t precise. And, in terms of stepping into another person’s shoes, I mean, frankly, I have small feet, so they aren’t going fit right. If I walk around in them, I will inevitably get blisters. And what about my comfort inserts? I need those for my back! I’m on my feet four to six hours a day. And what about . . .
Oh, sorry. Got carried away there.
See this film. You can get a copy of the DVD online for roughly ten bucks. Look at the world through another’s point of view to understand what’s going on. Don’t really worry about the actual shoes you’ll have to try on. They won’t fit right at first, but your feet will be okay in the end. I promise.