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The epitome of brutal realism, war on the ground is the subject of elaborate fantasy in two deceptively modest, highly self-conscious films, Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss’s Iraq (or rather “Iraq”) documentary Full Battle Rattle and Serge Bozon’s dark and goofy World War I romance, La France.
A combat doc once removed from combat and twice mediated by stagecraft, Full Battle Rattle depicts simulated war in a theme-park reality. Part scripted, part improvised, the doings on a back-lot battlefield are experienced as the real thing—whether actual war movie or actual war. As suggested by its title (Army slang for 50 pounds of protective gear), Full Battle Rattle is a costume film. The set is a facsimile Iraqi village, somewhere (along with a dozen other such villages) in the National Training Center, a 1,000-square-mile chunk of the Mojave (location for countless westerns and sci-fi films), inhabited by some 1,600 role-players, mostly Iraqi refugees hired by the military and American soldiers. The latter not only play themselves but also, as coached by Hollywood actors like Carl “Apollo Creed” Weathers, Iraqi insurgents.
Back in the day, the NTC used to be the site for Cold War games pitting the U.S. Army against the dreaded Krasnovian invaders, rolling through a (post-nuclear?) swath of an imaginary Eastern Europe. For the past several years, this simulated, interactive Iraq—irresistibly comic and deeply disturbing—has served as an introduction for American troops to actual Iraq.
Tracking the education of an Iraq-bound battalion and its by-the-book colonel, Full Battle Rattle looks just like a regular war movie. The slippage is constant. The soldiers naturally feel as if they’re in a movie, even if the field hospital is populated by a mix of “wounded” soldiers and artfully mangled dummies. Given the situation that might have been conceived by Philip K. Dick (or Walt Disney), the documentary could have been devised to satirize the theses of French theorists Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio. “In industrialized warfare,” Virillo wrote in War and Cinema, “the representation of events outstripped the presentation of facts.”
An information officer interviewed by the filmmakers inevitably compares the setup to reality TV. And, as in life, everything that happens in the NTC is shown on TV. Call it The True Man Show. In their effort to train soldiers for all contingencies, including civil war, the largely invisible powers-that-be script staged executions, attacks, and, most intricately, a checkpoint accident. Afterward, the guilty soldiers hand out fake reparation money—too much, as it turns out.
Set off by sprightly graphics and shimmering with over-bright colors, Full Battle Rattle has a fake transparency. The movie arouses, without gratifying, a desire to see the camera—not to mention the hidden command center where the scenarios are devised. It’s somewhat too seamless, even if the filmmakers do break the illusion to interview American soldiers and Iraqi role-players. (Most of them seem to live in San Diego; all are—or seek to be—U.S. citizens.) Lurking around the periphery, American “insurgents” confide to the camera that they are planning to kill as many people as possible. Sure enough, in one late movie set-piece, the insurgents launch a surprise attack on a celebratory banquet attended by both the village mayor and the colonel. The latter is bizarrely cool. Assuring all that his men have the situation in hand, he turns speechless when “casualties” stagger in dressed up in newly applied zombie wounds. Having lost the game big-time, the colonel wonders if he is a failure. Cut to a staged military funeral, where the attendees cry real tears.
As well they might: The show ends with the American actors being sent to Iraq as the Iraqi performers prepare to entertain their next batch of recruits. The filmmakers alternate a few stories: American families are separated; Iraqi families are reunited in America. (One Iraqi amuses relatives by showing them the tape of his staged execution.) The movie reports that out of 1.4 million Iraqi DPs, fewer than 600 have found refuge in the U.S. A sizable portion of these fortunate few have made lives in the virtual villages of the NTC—speaking Arabic, wearing traditional clothes, eating traditional food, staging mock weddings and funerals. (“For real, we’re family,” one tells the filmmakers.) One of the many surreal aspects of this fabulously disorienting movie: its representation of an Iraqi heaven that’s an American hell.
As low-tech as Full Battle Rattle is high-concept, La France is a platoon film unlike any I’ve ever seen, although, steeped in movie history, critic turned director Serge Bozon claims both Hollywood and Soviet World War II movies as his models.
La France treats the first total war with fairy-tale matter-of-factness. The movie opens in May 1917, nearly three years into World War I. French farm girl Camille (Sylvie Testud) receives a letter from her soldier husband warning that she will not hear from and perhaps never see him again. That night, she crops her hair and sets off for the front in the guise of a 17-year-old boy. Her adventures are at once dreamlike and prosaic: Wandering in the woods, she stumbles upon an encampment of sleeping soldiers. Perhaps imagining that she is invisible, Camille lies down among them.
Next morning, the freaked-out soldiers expel the mysterious boy who has materialized in their midst; when Camille insists on tagging along, the not unsympathetic commanding officer (Pascal Greggory)—who has already warned her that traveling with them is a journey toward death—fires a warning shot that inexplicably pierces her hand. This wound insures that the soldiers will accept the lad into their ranks. But Camille’s stigmata is not the only mystic sign: Without warning, the men break into song, accompanying their four-part harmonies with a range of makeshift fretted instruments.
While Camille seeks news of the front, the platoon resolutely avoids it. They skulk through trenches and are glimpsed, in one shock-cut, perched like monkeys in the trees. The France of La France is provocatively bucolic, although combat isn’t completely absent: There are sounds of shelling, and horsemen armed with lances thunder across the horizon. Camille herself is a sort of Jeanne d’Arc: She nurses the wounded men and later boldly scales a watchtower, stabbing a sentry to save the platoon. (This prompts another song.)
No less than Camille, the lost platoon she joins is on a personal mission, and, given Camille’s journey into the underworld to recover her husband, the two intertwined quests amount to the myth of Orpheus retold from a female perspective. Without ever surrendering its deadpan naturalism, La France becomes increasingly poetic: The seasons change, the landscape grows barren, and the stars in the sky take their names from the dead men below.