During World War II, John Huston (The Maltese Falcon) went to the front lines of the Italian campaign and made a film about The Battle of San Pietro (1945). Though produced through the auspices of the U.S. Army, they at first refused to release the film on the grounds that its unflinchingly graphic depiction of men in battle would hurt morale. Eventually though, General George Marshall decided that the film should be seen after all, that it was vital to use films like this to prepare soldiers-in-training for what they might someday experience first-hand.
More than 60 years later, with the release of the new HBO documentary Baghdad ER (2006), the Army seems to be moving in the opposite direction. "When we went to the Pentagon and we screened this for the top soldier in the Army and all his staff, [and] they said that they felt it celebrated the Army, [and] that it captured the soul of the Army," producer and co-director Jon Alpert told CNN. "They wanted all Americans to see it and they also wanted everybody in the military to see it. And they began programming this at bases all around the country.
"At some point the Office of the Secretary of the Army, this is the civilian side, the guys that actually aren't over there fighting and doing this type of work, decided that Americans probably shouldn't see this. And they actually tried to censor the film."
The Army's reaction is understandable if indefensible. Baghdad ER is as horrifying a film as you're ever likely to see. Book-ended by graphic amputations, it's 64 minutes of limbs disturbingly bent out of shape like rubber, corpses looking waxen and drained of color due to a catastrophic loss of blood, bodies with gaping holes exposing bones and muscle tissue. An Army recruiting film it's not.
And yet one of the best things about Baghdad ER is that it's resolutely apolitical. In an era when many filmmakers and media outlets like Fox News and Air America preach to their respective choirs, Baghdad ER impressively remains neutral while sticking to its central, inarguable point: that war mutilates the minds and bodies of healthy young men and women in unimaginable ways. This is a film that should (and needs to) be seen by conservatives, moderates, and liberals alike.
The scant opinions expressed directly by the film's on-camera subjects are so general they could apply to any war, anywhere in the world, at any time. "It's just sad," says one especially frustrated doctor, referring to the use of improvised explosive devices (I.E.D.s) that seem to be the source of most of the carnage, "Every day a never-ending string of this shit." Conversely, an infantry man with shrapnel in his eye wants nothing more than to get back on the line as quickly as possible to serve his unit, serve his country.
Directors Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill pretty much restrict the scope of their documentary to the grounds and area immediately surrounding the 86th Combat Support Hospital (CHS), in Bagdad's Green Zone, in operating rooms and an ICU that looks much like any other hospital. Its staff of doctors and nurses and orderlies do an incredible job but neither they nor the wounded soldiers are particularly heroes to be lionized. These are ordinary people doing extraordinary jobs under circumstances most Americans can't even imagine.
And oh, what they endure. Bodies are drilled, limbs are sawed off (and placed in bright-red garbage bags obviously earmarked for such), soldiers and Iraqi police officers bleed out to the point where the floor is literally covered with blood. One soldier's hand is so mutilated you can hardly tell where the fingers and thumb are supposed to go. For this reviewer, after a while it was just too much; I'm not ashamed to say that eventually I took to holding the DVD case in front of my eyes to blot out the most graphic sequences. Suffice to say that this is not something you want to watch after consuming a hearty meal.
Haunting moments aren't limited to torn-apart bodies. Two shell-shocked buddies, one pretty badly wounded, reflect on a horrible shared experience: they saw their friend's face get blown off and, hours later, still can barely comprehend what they've witnessed. "I can't close my eyes without seeing it," says one.
The sight of relentless, incoming choppers and doctors who deal with the carnage by using their down time to brush up on their putting or enjoy a "cigar night" on the hospital's rooftop can't help but recall M*A*S*H. As they sit there enjoying their smokes a series of explosions is seen off in the distance, and they know that more torn-apart men and women will soon be requiring their care.
Video & Audio
Baghdad ER is presented in an excellent 16:9 widescreen transfer to puts you right there in the middle of the action. Probably shot high-def, the image, color, and sharpness are up to current technological standards. The 2.0 audio (also available in Spanish) is likewise excellent. There are no subtitle options, however, and no Extra Features.
Baghdad ER is not an easy film to sit through, but it's also honest in a way that war movies and even many war documentaries rarely are. Indeed, this reviewer couldn't help but think that whether it's the Bush Administration or al-Qaeda, Israel or Hezbollah, anyone in power thinking about sending men into battle should, like Ludovico treatment scene in A Clockwork Orange, first be required to watch Baghdad ER with their eyes clamped open wide and unblinking.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.