Political Film Society - Newsletter #262 - November 15, 2006

November 15, 2006


Catch a FireDirected by Political Film Society awardwinner Phillip Noyce (for The Quiet American), the movie Catch a Fire is a biopic about Patrick Chamusso (played by Derek Luke), a Black South African who at the beginning is enjoying a wedding celebration in the year 1980. As the film progresses, he is depicted as a family man with two daughters who works as a foreman at the Secunda oil refinery in the Transvaal, coaches a soccer team of young boys, and eschews efforts of his mother-in-law to listen to radio broadcasts by the African National Congress. On the way home from the wedding, he is interrogated briefly and somewhat harshly about a recent act of defiance committed by the ANC. One day, he takes his soccer team to a competition match, after which he calls in sick to his boss at the refinery so that he can spend the night with a girlfriend and son at some distance from the soccer match. But that very night a bomb goes off at Secunda, so all the Black workers are under suspicion. Colonel Nic Vos (played by Tim Robbins) is in charge of the investigation; based in part on the fact that weapons used by the ANC come from the Soviet Union, he believes that Moscow is directing the ANC and will take over if the apartheid government is overthrown. Patrick is among those arrested for questioning. After he is first tortured, Vos plays “good cop.” Patrick’s whereabouts that night are a puzzle to Vos, but Patrick at first refuses to admit his infidelity. Later, when Patrick says that he visited a girlfriend in another town, Vos does not believe him. After Vos arranges to have Patrick’s wife tortured, Patrick gives an obviously false confession of his involvement, and Vos has him released. However, Patrick’s wife realizes that he visited his other woman, so their relations become somewhat distant when he returns home. Accordingly, Patrick decides to join the ANC in his native Mozambique, where he joins the armed unit of the ANC that was being trained by Lithuanian Joe Slovo (played by Malcolm Purkey), then president of the South African Communist Party. Soon after Patrick arrives, the training camp is bombed; he then goes to Angola, plots to bomb Secunda again, carries out the mission, is arrested, and sent to exile in 1981 on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and a thousand or so others were detained within sight of Capetown. At the end of the film, in 1991, Patrick and other freedom fighters are released (though Mandela had been transferred in 1982 to a prison in a Capetown suburb). Film footage of the real Patrick Chamusso appears at the end of the film, including the Two Sisters orphanage, which provides a home to orphans of those murdered under apartheid that Patrick now runs. Some fifteen years earlier, such films about the evils of apartheid as The Power of One (1992), which won a Political Film Society award, tended to focus on the role of Whites in the struggle, so Catch a Fire is long overdue as a depiction of one of the thousands of Blacks who gave their lives to end apartheid. However, there is a more contemporary message in the film. Patrick was branded a terrorist; in one scene he is waterboarded, and he is roughed up in other scenes, leaving his face bloodied. Clearly, the torture that he received for a crime that he did not commit turned him against the South Africa to which he had accommodated himself. An obvious question raised is what has happened to those released from Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo for crimes that they did not commit. An interesting element in the film is that the screenwriter, Shawn Slovo, is Joe Slovo’s son, and a title dedicates the film to his memory. MH


Flags of our FathersFew recall the controversy about one of the most memorable photographs of all time--the one featuring six soldiers attempting to raise the American flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, on February 23, 1945. But the recent book, Flags of Our Fathers (2000) by James Bradley with Ron Powers has come to the screen as a reminder in Flags of Our Fathers, directed by Clint Eastwood, an exposé of sorts that is depicted with enough gore to equal the realism of Saving Private Ryan (1998) and The Thin Red Line (1998). The first flagraising was by an advance unit that indeed inspired the troops to proceed with the battle to victory. However, the flag was removed when an unnamed politician sought Old Glory as a trophy, and a second flag was raised. The photograph is of the second flagraising. When the snapshot appeared on the front page of newspapers across the country, politicians in Washington saw the picture as a symbol of victory and envisioned using the flagraisers to attract citizens to buy more war bonds to finance the struggle. Accordingly, three survivors (the others were already dead) were summoned to Washington and later to New York and Chicago in order to make personal appeals for war bonds. The problem was that the photos showed the backs of the soldiers, not their faces, and the soldiers who were summoned were not the ones who raised the flag in the photo. The story is voiced in part by James Bradley (played by Tom McCarthy), the son of John “Doc” Bradley (played by Ryan Philippe as a soldier, by George Grizzard as James’s aging father), who was a medic at Iwo Jima. Evidently, “Doc” Bradley never talked about his war experiences with his son James, who decided to do some research in order to find out the truth. He learns that his father goes along with the charade for the sake of selling war bonds, as do the other two men, including Ira Hayes (played by Adam Beach), whose emotions get carried away. Hayes plays the part of a Native American (Beach is a Native Canadian.) who is ribbed by his fellow soldiers for being an “Indian,” treated with disdain by a Senator, praised by President Harry Truman (played by David Patrick Kelly), and refused service at a bar in Chicago, culminating in disorderly conduct that results in his discharge from the Marines and brief imprisonment; later, he visits the father of one of the soldiers to tell him that his son was actually in the scene depicted by the photo, and thereafter he commits suicide. When the truth leaks out later, a scandal erupts but dies. Much of the film involves flashbacks to the battle and James Bradley’s interviews of the survivors. Several themes are clear: (1) The soliders who fought were indeed very young and inexperienced, cannon fodder in the quest for victory. (2) The real heroes of Iwo Jima were those who died. (3) Soldiers did not consciously die for their country; they died while trying to help their fellow soldiers. (4) Politicians unapologetically use soldiers for their own agendas. (5) Iconic photographs can change public moods; in the case of the Iwo Jima flagraising, the photo served to convey a sense of victory. James Bradley notes quite early in the film that the picture of the American soldiers holding a gun to the head of a Vietnamese played a similar role in summarizing a mood, though that was the barbarity of America’s role in the Vietnamese Civil War. (6) War has tragic effects on soldiers and their loved ones, a message that speaks directly to the battlefield costs of the current wars in which the United States is engaged. In the latter respect, Flags of Our Fathers is a very subtle anti-war film. Next year, Warner Brothers plans to release the Japanese version of the Battle of Iwo Jima in Letters from Iwo Jima. MH