Fighting looks so easy when the movies do it

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The Independent Culture

Film Studies

Film Studies

How do you film a fight? You rule that the boxers must stay in a ring, and then you place as many cameras as you can around the ring. Some are to stay in full shot, some are told to keep "close up" on one fighter or another. Then you let the fight take place and do your best to edit the footage together so that you've got the most accurate record of, say, Ali v Foreman.

But as and when they come to do the Muhammad Ali story, that comeback victory can be re-staged. You can fragment the fight and do bits and pieces of it in slow motion and/or extreme close-up, with a tilted, zooming, perfumed camera - to convey the triumph, the madness, the nausea - whatever you want to call it. That's how Scorsese shot the fights in Raging Bull (1980), the camera in the ring with the fighters.

But how do you film a piece of combat? How would you film 6 June 1944? At something like 5am that day, the great (or the very brave, or the chronically reckless) still photographer Robert Capa went into the water with the 1st Infantry off Omaha Beach. He was in the second wave who found the first wave pinned down on a low-tide beach by comprehensive German fire. "There was so much chaos," he would write later, "that one was reduced to a state of almost complete immobilisation."

He was terrified. One story said that the great Capa actually tried to get back to a landing craft. But every now and then amid the panic he held up his camera and shot. They are still historic pictures, the most immediate record we have of D-Day - and they are, technically, awful pictures, out of focus, incoherent and shuddery with the fear of the shooter.

More than 50 years later, Steven Spielberg went back to Normandy for Saving Private Ryan and filmed similar moments in such a way that many of us - especially the connoisseurs, those never fired upon in our lives - felt we had never properly experienced combat before. Spielberg had the time, the money, and the imagination to do a lot of things. He made sound as dynamic and monstrous as Grendel: he let a roar deafen his soldiers (and us); he left hearing wobbly and pressurised; he had the camera itself judder and quake from the blast of explosions; he drained away every colour except blood; he showed us a man coming back to pick up his severed hand. He put his camera so thoroughly within the action that we felt we were there - no matter that any camera actually there that long would have been destroyed. In other words, he organised the action until it was as formal as the burial grounds later planted on the cliff-tops. And he showed fearful men trying to hold up their heads and see where they were shooting.

I was put in this way of thinking by the battle at the beginning of Gladiator. We are in wintry "Germania" as the legions of Marcus Aurelius prepare to inflict a decisive defeat on the barbarians. The Roman formations - the squares of infantry with shield cover, the cavalry, the artillery - are clearly displayed. A child could see how Romans fought, and why they won. You could hardly watch without believing that combat is a fine, manageable, noble art. A schoolboy thing. But sometimes boys need to be taught to ask more searching questions.

A few days ago, I saw Zulu (1964) on television. I have a soft spot, or a schoolboy's heart, for that film. It is riveting and beautiful, and though it is 36 years old now, the direction, by Cy Endfield, is exemplary. And it seems like a just fight in that a hundred or so red-coated Welsh troops are attacked at Rorke's Drift Mission by thousands of Zulu warriors. (No one ever asks about why the redcoats were there on the great Zulu plain. Close attention to combat usually excludes politics.)

The prolonged battle moves from rifle to bayonet. The Welshmen use infantry tactics proved at Waterloo and there is an astounding moment when a row of unwavering rifles leads a pan shot across a frame filled with Zulu bodies, close enough to spit at the soldiers. Rorke's Drift really happened. It is still the occasion in British military history that produced the most Victoria Crosses. At the end of the film the Zulus line the hills. The soldiers fear one more onslaught. But then the Zulu go into a chant of salute, and withdraw. It's like the end of a rugby match. But, if only because the credits say that Chief Buthulezi played one of the Zulu leaders, I want to know more about their point of view.

For the most part, great combat scenes are made by people who have never been closer to war than to a table-top display of toy soldiers. The more lucid a battle seems on screen, the more compromises have gone into its telling. I trust Capa (he died in French Indochina, stepping on a mine), and the blurred, messy, slightly out-of-focus footage from Kosovo or anywhere else. For in the blur there is a human truth boys do not like: it is that in combat most of us behave so badly that we need to know why we are fighting.

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