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Cinema returns to same conflicts time and again, and by now, for the generations born post-Second World War, the popular image of history’s greatest battles come from their depictions on the big screen: the harsh conditions and futility of the trenches in the First World War (Gallipoli, All Quiet on the Western Front); the sheer scale and barbarity of D-Day (Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day); the paranoia and psychological torture of jungle warfare Vietnam (Apocalypse Now, Platoon). Even the first Gulf War has been the subject of a few decent films (Three Kings, Jarhead).
But the Falklands War – which ended 37 years ago today – has never been the subject of major British or Hollywood film.
The Falklands feels as much a part of the fabric of Britain in the Eighties as Vietnam does to America in the Sixties. So what is it about the Falklands that has stopped it from being dramatised as a major movie production? Is the topic still too sensitive a topic for us Brits (and indeed, the Argentines)? Are its politics more complex than the old Allies vs. Axis dynamic that makes WW2 such a translatable narrative?
Or is it, for whatever reason, just not cinematic enough to compete with the rousing courage of Private Ryan et al? There is, after all, something universally human at the heart of war cinema.
“The story of young men going to war and discovering they can be killed and questioning if it was it worth it, that’s a perennial story,” says Sir Richard Eyre, who directed the last significant film to be made on the Falklands, the 1988 BBC drama Tumbledown. “That’s a story that will go on being told. But the politics of it are quite complicated, I think, from this distance.”
The conflict began on April 2, 1982 when Argentina's new Junta, headed by General Leopoldo Galtieri, sent 130 Argentine commandos to invade the Falklands Islands, after years of political tussling over sovereignty of the islands. The fighting lasted for 10 weeks, after British troops had seized back the islands and forced the Argentines to surrender. Almost a thousand lives had been lost: 649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British military personnel, and three Falkland Islanders killed.
Sir Lawrence Freedman was appointed as Professor of War Studies at King’s College on April 1, 1982 – the day before the conflict began – and served as an advisor to the select committee on defence. He remembers it as a “radio war”, because video footage took weeks to get back to British television. “It was pre-internet, pre-easy communications,” says Freedman. “By 1991 with the Gulf War this had changed, but the communications at the time were quite difficult, even amongst commanders. The TV images came back late, way after the event.”mll
Though not necessarily cinematic as it was happening, the events unfolded thrillingly on TV via dramatic “newsflash” reports and deadpan updates from Ministry of Defence spokesman Ian McDonald, such as announcements about the sinking of the General Belgrano, and burning of HMS Sheffield. “It was dramatic because it shocking and upsetting,” remembers Freedman. “But it created trust because we were being told.”
To those born afterwards, the conflict feels like the last the last Imperial jostle of Great Britain – a battle for the final rocks of the Empire, 8,000 miles away in the South Atlantic and with a population of just 1,800 people. Richard Eyre first heard that the war had started from the radio while he was abroad. “I got back to this country to discover this fever,” he says. “There were a lot of people who were strongly opposed to it demonstrating, and there was this appeal to patriotism."
Of the handful of films based on the Falklands, Eyre’s Tumbledown is by far the best known. It tells the story of Robert Lawrence, a Scots Guard officer who was shot in the head by an Argentine sniper during the Battle for Mount Tumbledown. The bullet blew away part of his brain and left him paralysed down one side of his body (he later made a partial recovery). Made just a few years after the war, when the wounds were still fresh, the drama was hugely controversial at the time, symptomatic of how divisive the Falklands War had been with both the British public and establishment.
“A lot of people were trying to stop us making it,” recalls Eyre. “There were questions in parliament and the MOD actively tried to stop us. The Scots Guard regiment prevented their tailor from making uniforms for us. There was a lot of preemptive abuse from The Telegraph and occasionally The Times, and demand that it was stopped, because it was assumed that the film would be a polemical blast against Thatcher and the war.”
If there are sensitivities in Britain about the war preventing a film being made, they could lie in a several issues: the decisions that were made during the conflict, most famously Thatcher’s controversial order to sink the Belgrano (though Freedman refutes any conspiracy theories and says that strategically the sinking was “perfectly explicable”); the media’s reporting on the war, from anti-war sentiments and un-patriotic reportage (“Thatcher complained when Peter Snow on Newsnight didn’t say ‘we’ when talking about British forces,” recalls Freedman) to fiercely jingoistic rhetoric, such as The Sun’s infamous “Gotcha” headline about the Belgrano; and, of course, the effects of the conflict on the soldiers who returned home.
“I think the soldiers were at odds with the media,” says Eyre. “I remember speaking to paras who in contempt of the tabloid press and burnt copies of The Sun.”
The war’s association with Margaret Thatcher could also be a factor. For Maggie supporters, it was the making of her as British leader: a potential humiliation turned into national triumph. For those who were anti-Thatcher, it was also the making of her: the thing that gave her the strength and ruthlessness that marked the beginnings of Thatcherism. Could it be that there’s no fixed political stance for a Falklands film to rally behind?
Tumbledown won awards but Richard Eyre remembers a certain amount of disappointment. “It was very well received,” he says. “But there was almost a disappointment that it hadn’t lived up to the bitter controversy that had proceeded it, that it turned out not to be the polemical anti-Thatcher diatribe that people on one side expected and people on the other side had craved. It’s actually quite a thoughtful film about young men going off to kill and be killed and also the excitement and joy of war for those men, apart from the pity of war.”
The only other films made about the Falklands are 1989’s Resurrected, the directorial debut of Paul Greengrass; An Ungentlemanly Act, a 1992 BBC drama starring Ian Richardson; and 2005’s Blessed by Fire, an acclaimed but little-known Argentine film.
Shane Meadows – never one to shy away from the abject misery of the Eighties – used the war as a backdrop to This Is England, with lead character Shaun (Tommy Turgoose) dealing with his father’s death in the Falklands; and who can forget Grant Mitchell in EastEnders, who suffered PTSD from fighting in the Falklands. The Iron Lady featured a scene in which Meryl Streep’s Thatcher decides to hit the Belgrano (“Sink it!” she demands), a scene that Lawrence Freedman describes as “totally fictitious”.
“The stuff that’s been done on the Falklands has been done more on the decision making,” he says. “I think there’s a problem that a lot of cotemporary film and TV focuses on trauma. Not to deny PTSD, but most soldiers recover from it.”
And it’s not that the action from the Falklands War couldn’t be cinematic. There were acts of heroism that would be ripe for a Hollywood-style narrative: the final charge of Lieutenant Colonel H. Jones, who died leading his men against Argentine gunfire at Goose Green; and Sergeant Ian McKay, who also died charging to take out the enemy to relieve the position of two British platoons.
“There were lots of acts of great bravery because there was a lot of hand-to-hand combat,” says Sir Lawrence Freedman. “There wasn’t heavy artillery and armoured warfare. A lot of it was done by infantry, with some air and navy in support. The accounts of the fighting are quite brutal. It’s not like later conflicts where you don’t see the attackers and you don’t know why you’re suddenly being blown up. This was very direct.”
While the best war films zone in to focus on individual stories, the fanfare and legitimacy of the genre is largely defined by their claim as “epics”. Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far, and Dunkirk all purport realism through large-scale production and grandiose execution, recreating battlefields with literal armies of extras and massive clunking armouries as a means of authenticity.
“I think there’s a story to be told about the Falklands but it’s not on scale,” says Freedman. “You’re not talking about sweeps of thousands of men ready for battle with tanks lined up, you’re talking about quite small scale engagements – hundreds rather than thousands, let alone tens of thousands. It’s not on a grand scale, it’s quite individualistic, which is why Tumbledown worked.”
While you’d hope a British-born filmmaker such as Christopher Nolan might give the intense Dunkirk treatment to a Falklands story, Richard Eyre offers a more practical explanation for why the Falklands War hasn’t made it onto the big screen – it’s not marketable enough to a mass American audience.
“When Tumbledown was shown on TV, an American producer called John Calley wanted to get it released in the States as a feature film,” Eyre says. “I was thrilled but he came back and said to me, ‘I’m sorry I can’t get anyone interested in it, it’s just too parochial.’"