Robert Fisk: When art is incapable of matching life

Our political world is now represented on the stage weeks after the real thing
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Art and reality have a strange relationship. Take Stuff Happens, David Hare's account of the build-up to war in Iraq, its title taken from Donald Rumsfeld's reaction to the widespread looting and pillage on 11 April 2003. But one of the most powerful scenes in the play is Colin Powell's appearance before the UN Security Council on 5 February.

I was sitting in the UN chamber at the time and my notes of the meeting show considerable cynicism and a good deal of disbelief on my part. I was dumbfounded by the cheap pictures of a mobile chemical weapons laboratory - it was supposed to be in a train, of all places - and the nonsensical transcript of a conversation between two of Saddam's henchmen ("consider it done, boss"). But only in the text of Hare's play do I realise what I missed.

"My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources ..." Powell says. "These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence." How come I didn't take this down in my notes? How come I missed the biggest whopper of them all? The source for the mobile weapons lab is "an eyewitness, an Iraqi chemical engineer". In fact, the "source" was in Germany and had never been interviewed by the CIA. And so on and on.

And the effect of Hare's play is devastating - far, far worse than the original Powell performance which I witnessed at first hand. Is that the effect of art or artifice? Maybe both, because it is now standard fare to watch our political world represented on the stage only weeks or days after the real thing.

It didn't used to be that way. Although Sassoon's and Owen's poetry were contemporary with the war they condemned, it was a long time before the stage caught up. R C Sherriff's Journey's End came long after 1918, and we had to wait for Graves and Blunden to tell it how it was in the coming years. All Quiet on the Western Front took years to be made - I am still fond of the second version with Ernest Borgnine that was produced after the Second World War - and the 1939-45 conflict yielded few great movies at the time.

Yes, I'll tip my hat to Leslie Mitchell and The First of the Few and to the forgotten 1942 film One of Our Aircraft is Missing. I used to watch them all on commercial television on Sunday afternoons, along with Casablanca, which was popular then more for the singing of the "Marseillaise" than for "Play it Sam".

I would watch Colonel Strasser arriving at Rick's café - he was played by a Jewish actor who might have died in Auschwitz had he not been in Hollywood (where he died on a golf course in 1943) - and always felt the best line was Bogey's half-drunken: "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world - and she has to walk into mine."

Yet it took 17 years after the event before we watched a movie about Dunkirk - John Mills's plucky infantryman is still strangely moving although I never got over watching the blowing up of Teston bridge near Maidstone which was doubling at the time for the battlefields of northern France. By comparison, The Longest Day was a clunker.

It was the 1960s before Britain's film-makers really got down to work on the Second World War. Of course, there were some favourites made then - The Great Escape comes to mind, not least because it contains cinema's most pointless word. As Hilts (Steve McQueen) races his plundered German motorcycle towards the mountains of Switzerland, he pulls to a halt and stares at the Swiss snows and says - yes - he says: "Switzerland!"

But I am being unfair. The Battle of Britain - in which the music was almost as good as the Spitfires - didn't duck the horrors of air warfare and Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai was probably the first cinema movie to show the terrible suffering of British PoWs in Asia. But I think I'd have to conclude that one of the finest post-war movies was A Bridge Too Far, the Arnhem epic which I now realise - on re-watching it only the other day - is about the end of empire and the tragedy its collapse imposes upon ordinary men and women. Arnhem was utterly worthless and the sheer waste in that film comes close to great art. It also gave Sean Connery one of his finest roles.

There was, more than 20 years ago, a stunning three-hour television drama on the Suez crisis which I watched in Beirut during the civil war - and which comes close to Hare because the British government was in 1956 caught lying almost as outrageously as the American variety 47 years later.

So what comes next? Will we see new Hare works every time we go to war? Or is there a three-year gap - which is the time it took to put Flight 93 on celluloid? My own suspicion is that it won't take that long - and that it will be our politicians who will be playing themselves; in other words, that reality and the world of movies (or stage plays) will become one.

After all, who can deny that the international crimes against humanity of 11 September 2001 were not more powerful images, more awesome in their effect, than Flight 93? Al-Qa'ida Productions got there first - by timing the second aircraft into the Twin Towers to coincide with real-time television coverage. This was why no claim of responsibility was ever made. There was no need for such a claim when the terrifying pictures told us all we needed to know. Which is why the video butchers of Baghdad have now slotted themselves on to the internet, showing near-live coverage of their decapitations.

Violence has now become so close to all our lives that art sometimes seems incapable of matching the reality. Indeed, actors might be losing their credibility. After all, wasn't the 43rd President of the United States all dolled up in a jumpsuit when he mouthed the greatest lie of all? Mission accomplished?

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