Falklands War 25 years on: Tumbledown revisited

Robert Lawrence tells Ian Griggs why it's time Richard Eyre's film about his shooting by a sniper in the Falklands should be shown again
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The Independent Online

It was a film that portrayed some of the most harrowing and controversial images of modern British troops at war. Tumbledown shocked the nation with gruesome scenes of hand-to-hand fighting in which a young lieutenant speared Argentinian troops with a broken bayonet and nearly met his own end when he was shot in the head by a sniper.

Now, with the 25th anniversary of the Falklands War looming, Robert Lawrence, on whose life Tumbledown was based, plans to return to the mountain top where he was nearly killed.

"I am planning to go back to the Falklands next week," Mr Lawrence told The Independent on Sunday. "It's a pretty strange experience going back - when you start to think about what happened it seeps back into your subconscious."

Mr Lawrence is leading calls for the BBC to reshow the film which, when first shown, infuriated the establishment and touched a nerve in British society. It told the true story of Mr Lawrence, who led one of the final assaults of the war, just hours before Argentina formally surrendered.

During the bloody battle for Tumbledown Hill, on 14 June 1982, Lt Lawrence, then just 21, led two platoons of the 2nd Battalion, Scots Guards against enemy positions entrenched on the rock. In the battle that followed he shot 14 Argentinian soldiers before storming the enemy's defences and stabbing three more with a broken bayonet.

He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery, but it was this gruesome scene, portrayed in graphic detail in the film, that caused widespread shock and anger when it was shown.

This month, Mr Lawrence defended the graphic violence in the film. "It's not morally very hard to pull a trigger but it is physically hard to get people to die because usually they don't want to," he said. "The ultimate level is bayoneting, because there is a physical link between the two of you. You don't stab them in the stomach, twist and withdraw. They grab on to the blade, it stabs them in the mouth and catches them everywhere."

In his moment of victory on the hillside in 1982, Lt Lawrence's life nearly ended when a bullet fired by an enemy sniper tore off the side of his head. His injury was horrendous, and he spent six hours on a mountainside before being airlifted to safety.

He spent a year in a wheelchair and was almost totally paralysed, but has made a partial recovery and now has feeling on the right side of his body.

Shunned by the military establishment on his return, Mr Lawrence, now 46, was relegated to the shadows of a remembrance service at St Paul's after the war and was not invited to the Lord Mayor's victory parade.

Instead, he put his efforts into telling the real story of the war, writing a book with his father,When the Fighting Is Over, which formed the basis of Tumbledown.

When the film was shown, it portrayed an image of the conflict that was at odds with the nationalistic pride following victory over Argentina. It was screened in 1989 to an audience of more than 10 million people, the figure perhaps boosted by the fury of the military and political establishment, which tried to stop the film being shown.

The BBC was accused of left-wing bias, Tumbledown's director Sir Richard Eyre was accused of being a Communist and the Army sought to discredit Mr Lawrence.

"People who had not even seen it were objecting to the making of it on principle because they thought it would be a 'pinko' diatribe," Sir Richard remembered. "I felt very much in the firing line when the film came out."

Nearly 20 years after it was first shown, those connected with the film, as well as veterans and MPs, are calling for the BBC to show it again. Many, including Mr Lawrence, feel there are parallels between the film's message of the futility of war and the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Charles Wood, the acclaimed scriptwriter who wrote Tumbledown, was clear about why he wrote it. "The Falklands War should never have happened; that it did happen is a reason for shame, regret and anger," he said in a recent interview.

Sir Richard said that, with the war's anniversary only two months away, it was time to reflect on the reasons for fighting it, the way it was fought and its lasting consequences.

"The film was about soldiering, what the job of soldiering is, and the use of soldiers as a political instrument," he said. "Are politicians aware of the consequences of using this political instrument? It's pretty apposite, I think.

"There is a similar situation today, with Iraq, where we are still sending young men to fight an unpopular war, so it is hard to say what we have learned in the intervening years."

Sir Richard said he was not sure Britain had grown up since the film was first shown and that, if anything, there was more apathy than ever. "With the Falklands, we didn't have a million people on the streets protesting against it, as we did with Iraq, but then what good did that do?

"I think there is a fear that people will shrug their shoulders and not believe in their ability to influence the Government. We elect people we trust to make decisions, but there is a quid pro quo where they are supposed to trust us as people to give us the reasons why we go to war."

Tam Dalyell, former Labour MP for Linlithgow, has condemned Baroness Thatcher at every turn - for more than 20 years - over the war. "There is a compelling reason to show Tumbledown again after all these years," he said. "It brings it home that war is unpleasant, brutish and thoroughly nasty.

"Those who have never done military service, as my generation had to, often have little or no notion as to what wars actually entail. Re-showing Tumbledown would be salutary for them - and for politicians who sit on green benches in the Houses of Commons sending other people's fathers, brothers and sons to war without clear military objectives."

The political comparisons between the Falklands War and the second Gulf War in Iraq were inescapable, said Mr Dalyell. He argues that while Lady Thatcher did not start the war, she used it to her own political advantage by adopting a military response to the crisis, which was precipitated when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands on 2 April 1982.

"Mr Blair saw that Mrs Thatcher had had great political success from a military victory, and thought that it would be the same in Iraq. He thought wartime prime ministers were better remembered than peacetime prime ministers."

Mr Lawrence, who now lives in Hampshire with his wife and young daughter after a long period of self-imposed exile in Australia, said British soldiers fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were living a similar "detached existence" to those who fought in the Falklands.

"It seems a strange war now," he said. "Then there was no talk of insurgency and the like. The Falklands was a conventional conflict, comparable with 1918, British soldiers versus Argentinian soldiers, all dressed in battle uniform. It feels so old-fashioned now."

A spokesman for the BBC said yesterday that Tumbledown has not currently been scheduled for terrestrial television.

Additional reporting by Anthony Barnes

The battle for Port Stanley: 'I collapsed, totally paralysed'

An extract from 'When the Fighting Is Over: A Personal Story of the Battle for Tumbledown Mountain and Its Aftermath' by John Lawrence and Robert Lawrence

"I remember seeing the lights of Stanley below us and thinking how strange that it hadn't been blacked out. I turned to Guardsman McEntaggart as we went along and for some inexplicable reason, suddenly cried out, 'Isn't this fun?' Seconds later, it happened; I felt a blast in the back of my head that felt more as if I'd been hit by a train than by a bullet. It was a high-velocity bullet, in fact, travelling at a speed of around 3,800 feet per second, and the air turbulence and shock wave travelling with it was what caused so much damage. I found this out later. At the time all I knew was that my knees had gone and I collapsed, totally paralysed, on the ground."