The horror, revisited
Charles Glass examines the ambiguous role of the cinema's newest hero — the war correspondent
. . and to this day I am unable to say which was Kurtz's profession, whether he ever had any — which was the greatest of his talents: I had taken him for a painter who wrote for the papers, or else for a journalist who could paint . ,
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness Although War Zone, a German-Israeli production recently released here, is a bad movie, it is the most recent in a series of 1980s films ostensibly about western jour- nalists caught up in the chaos and `kaffir wars' of the post-colonial third world. The morally ambiguous figure of the war cor- respondent has replaced the more certain figure of the secret agent of a generation ago, or the imperial soldier a generation before that, against the familiar backdrop of native passions, palm trees and tempta- tion. The war correspondent films — in- cluding Circle of Deceit (1981), The Killing Fields (1982), The Year of Living Danger- ously (1982), Under Fire (1983) and Salva- dor (1986) — range from excellent to awful. They share a disdain for accurate portrayal of journalists, because they are not about journalisrh at all. They are contemporary morality plays about white men in the third world.
Most of the stories could be about men — white men of the Anglo-American post-colonial order — from almost any walk of life. The `journalistic' vignettes do not ring true, although Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields, based on a true story, comes closer than the others. War Zone, directed, if that is the word, by Nathaniel Gutman, does not come close. Not only does it portray an American television correspon- dent unlike any I have encountered (and I am one), it makes not so much as a genuflection to historical truth. Don Stevens, the television correspondent play- ed by Christopher Walken, is first seen driving a Hertz car (Hertz closed ten years ago in Lebanon) somewhere in the lonely Lebanese countryside, during the Israeli siege of west Beirut. Mortar shells are falling nearby. These shells — like most in all these films — do not give off shrapnel, and Stevens's car is untouched. He asks a shepherd for directions to Beirut. Where was he coming from? How did he get there? These are the least of the questions left unanswered in War Zone.
In Beirut, the foreign press corps is in a hotel called the Cedars of Lebanon, which bears a striking resemblance to the Amer- ican Colony Hotel in Jerusalem. Wait a minute! It is the Colony, not the Commod- ore where the press corps really spent the 1982 invasion. The film was shot in Israel, not Lebanon, and all the actors portraying Christopher Walken as the American jour- nalist Don Stevens in War Zone Palestinians look and sound like Israelis. In fact, as the credits reveal at the end of the film, they are Israelis. They not only speak English with Hebrew accents, they speak Arabic with Hebrew accents. Unlike the television correspondents who covered the 1982 invasion with the assistance of other television correspondents, producers, video-tape editors, drivers and fixers, Stevens is alone — save for an ostensibly Arab cameraman named Abdul who final- ly quits when Stevens won't go into combat with him. (Most news cameramen would have quit their jobs long ago if they cared whether their correspondents came with them or not.) When Abdul quits, Stevens borrows video pictures from his rivals (try that one someday, and you may need new knee-caps) and finally picks up the camera himself. He then takes pictures with his camera lights off (an impossibility).
It gets better, or worse: Stevens learns from an Israeli officer that the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps massacres are about to take place, following the murder of Lebanon's president-elect Bachir Gemayel by, in this version of events, the PLO. In fact, no one has accused the PLO of the assassination, and no one has proved who was behind the Lebanese bomber. The officer, who is charging off to west Beirut with his men, tells Stevens, `After what's happened, the Phalangists will revenge. They are going to enter the refugee camps.' Ever slow to take a hint, Stevens asks, `What are you saying?'
`There will be a massacre. No Palesti- nian will survive. And I mean no one kids, everybody, according to what I heard. But I'm taking you back. But you must call your station and report it. Maybe that's the only way.'
War Zone ends with this reminder: The events, characters and firms depicted in this film are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons living or dead, or actual events or firms is purely coincidental.' A film which contradicts the historical record and the Kahan Commission Report on the Sabra-Shatila massacres is in no danger of even a coincidental similarity to actual events. Stevens left the Israelis to report on the impending disaster, but his employers, by now as impatient with him as are the remaining members of the audience, hang up.
War Zone is ultimately about nothing in particular, although it does attempt feebly to make some political points: that Israel had nothing to do with Sabra and Shatila, that Palestinians willing to make peace with Israel are killed by their own side and, most importantly, that tb.e PLO unscrupu- lously used journalists in Beirut for their own ends and the journalists cooperated willingly..
While Don Stevens gives no thought to being used by anyone, war correspondents in the other films are troubled when they cross the line between observer and partici- pant. Russell Price, the photographer play- ed by Nick Nolte in Roger Spottiswoode's Under Fire, tries at first to remain neutral. He goes with a party of Sandinistas to attack the National Guard position in a church tower. One of the Sandinistas, Pedro, who speaks English and has played baseball in the US, throws a grenade into the -Guards' position, apparently killing them all. Price goes up to take pictures and finds Oates, a CIA mercenary, still alive. When he returns to the Sandinistas, he says nothing about Oates, who fires from the church tower at Pedro, killing him instant- ly. Price shouts, 'You bastard!' and picks hp the fallen gun. Later he admits to Claire, his friend's girlfriend with whom he is having an affair, that he knew who shot Pedro. 'Why didn't you tell the guerrillas?' she asks him.
`I don't know . . . Then they would've killed him, I guess. I didn't want to interfere.'
`It wasn't an easy choice.'
'I think I made the wrong one.'
It is not long before Price is asked to make another choice, by the guerrillas who want him to falsify a photograph of the slain guerrilla leader Rafael, to convince the world he is still alive. Commandante Cinco tries to persuade him, saying, Washington thinks Rafael is dead, they will ship the arms to Somoza. Do you under- stand? 'Yeh,' Price says. Then, as if to remove himself from any commitment, he explains, 'I'm a journalist.' Claire, played by Joanna Cassidy, tries to convince him. 'I spend my whole life separating how I feel from how I think and what I see from what I say — that's professional, isn't it?' Price says he's won enough prizes, and she answers, 'But you haven't won a war.' Here lies the great temptation, delivered by an Eve who is also a journalist: not merely to observe a story, but to create it. Many journalists must have felt this at one time or another, and in the films they do not resist.
Richard Boyle, the most interesting of all these journalist heroes, well acted by James Woods in Oliver Stone's Salvador, also goes beyond the limits of journalism. In one scene, he provides the American Embassy in San Salvador with photographs he has taken of guerrillas, something a journalist should not do, but tries to persuade the military attaché and civilian analyst to change US foreign policy, some- thing a journalist cannot do. The military attache is disappointed that Boyle's photo- graphs do not show Soviet weapons from Nicaragua or Cuba. Boyle says the guerril- las are fighting, not for the Soviets, but to feed their people and to crush the right- wing death squads.
`It was that kind of crap thinking that lost us Vietnam, this guilt shit,' the military attaché says. 'Liberal assholes, what the hell do you think the KGB is doing?'
'Is that why you guys are here?' Boyle asks. 'Some kind of post-Vietnam experi- ence, like you need a re-run or something. You pour 120 million bucks into this place. You turn it into a military zone, for what? So you can have chopper parades in the sky?'
`You're blowing it out your ass.'
Boyle has come to El Salvador to pick up any freelance work he can. When he meets John Cassady, acted by John Savage, a Newsweek photographer loosely based on John Hoaglund who was killed in El Salvador, he tells him, 'No work. No one cares about this stinking little war.' Boyle answers, 'I care.'
Later, Cassady and Boyle do something no real war correspondents have knowing- ly done: run through opposing lines, for some reason only yards apart, in the middle of a fire fight, shouting, `Periodista! Periodista!' (`Journalist! Journalist!') Boyle has chosen to be involved in the drama of El Salvador, but most of the other film journalists have commitment thrust on them by force of circumstances. In the most allegorical film of this genre, Peter Weir's The Year of Living Danger- ously, the two central characters are a western journalist and his local assistant. This was not unlike Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields, in which the possibilities of friendship between a western correspon- dent and a native helper are explored. In The Year of Living Dangerously, the char- acters are symbols: Mel Gibson's Austra- lian reporter Guy Hamilton is the new first world, and Linda Hunt's Billy Kwan, a dwarf who leads Hamilton through the maze of Indonesia, is the deformed third world. 'You are an enemy here, Hamilton, like all westerners,' Billy Kwan's voice is heard saying, as Hamilton arrives in Jakar- ta for his first overseas assignment. 'Today President Sukarno tells the west to go to hell, and today President Sukarno is the voice of the third world.'
Billy is killed when he publicly de- nounces Sukarno for betraying his people. The military coup follows, and Guy's driver Kumar, played by Bembol Roco, confronts him. Kumar belongs to the KPI, Indonesia's. Communist Party, thousands of whose members are being executed by the military. 'Am I a stupid man?' he asks Guy.
`Then why should I live like a poor man all my life, when stupid people in your country live well?'
`I don't know.'
`Then why do you condemn those who try to do something about it? . . . Sukar- no's right. Westerners don't have answers any more.'
Guy then asks Kumar to take him to the airport so he can escape.
Betrayal and escape are recurrent themes in all these films, as if to imply the war correspondent, or the westerner in the third world, must betray someone: either the people whose story he is reporting or the people he is reporting for. He must escape eventually, because his integrity will not survive long in a region of killing fields, war zones and dangerous living. Marlow must leave to survive and to understand what has happened.
The escape theme is strong in Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields and in Salvador.
The Killing Fields' theme of friendship, based on the true story of New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg and local stringer Dith Pran, is distorted — much as the intended friendship in A Passage to India (the book, not the film) between Fielding and Aziz — by their inequality. As the Khmer Rouge conquest of Cambo- dia comes closer in 1975, Schanberg, who has often treated him badly, asks Pran to decide whether to flee to safety or take his chances. Pran wants to know whether Schanberg will leave. 'That's none of your damn business. Do you wanna stay, you wanna leave?' In one of the most moving moments of the film, Pran answers, 'I know, you love my family, Sydney. But me, I am a reporter too, Sydney.'
The two men, played by Sam Waterston and Dr Hang Ngor, remain behind, but later the Khmer Rouge allow only Schan- berg to go. In New York, Schanberg is bound to Cambodia so long as Pran re- mains missing in a forced labour camp. On his own initiative, Pran finally escapes to Thailand. Schanberg's first words, symbo- lically on behalf of all America for what it did to Cambodia, when he meets Pran again, are, 'Do you forgive me?' Pran is out, Schanburg is absolved, but for Cam- bodia, the agony continues.
In Under Fire, Russell Price, who bet- rays a friend and his professional ethics, prepares to leave Nicaragua in the hands of the Sandinistas who have liberated it from Somoza, but with the figure of Oates, the CIA mercenary, lurking in the back- ground. In Salvador, Richard Boyle flees to save his life, but he fails to save the Salvadorean women he loves. Again and again, these white men get out, leaving the countries which touched them for a mo- ment either in or on the brink of chaos.
The exception is the German journalist hero of Volker Schlondorff's Circle of Deceit, the only one of these movies filmed in the actual location of the story. (The Killing Fields used Thailand for Cambodia. The Year of Living Dangerously used the Philippines for Indonesia. Under Fire and Salvador used Mexico for central Amer- ica.) Schlondorff's hero remains curiously detached. He faces none of the dilemmas of engagement, except to a German woman in Beirut. He has come to Lebanon preoccupied with his marriage at home in Germany, which seems to be in trouble. His most poignant reflection on Beirut is that it, like Berlin, is divided between east and west. He broods, and he leaves. For him, there is no escaping the Teutonic condition.
There may well be more war correspon- dent films in the years ahead, as film- makers fix on his figure as the vehicle for examining stories in, if not of, the third world. They are discovering something Marina Warner wrote in these pages 15 years ago (Spectator, 1 July 1972) and applying it to film: 'War reporting is the contemporary male's duel. When a news- man comes back from down the road, from the challenge of enemy fire, he feels the pounding in his blood like any corny soldier, but without the taint of being a military man.' They have some way to go to make their actors act like journalists, but there are moments in most of these films that cause all of us war correspon- dents to nod, or wince, in recognition.