The War Within: 1949 and 2009

This week's release of The Hurt Locker recalls another superb drama about war's effect on a bomb expert, The Small Back Room, made in 194p by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

It's worth comparing these films because they show how little things have changed in terms of how the high stress work of neutralizing a flesh-shredding bomb affects a bomb expert's psyche, as well as the progress of IEDs (improvised explosive devices), from neat little cylinders dropped from German planes to the present-day's crude but effective bombs made to inflict huge trauma in public places.

Back Room takes place on the British home front: German planes have been leaving little thermos-like bombs near seaside military bases almost like tests to gauge how to best kill British soldiers, whereas Hurt Locker deals with an American bomb team coping with the nasty plans of insurgents who use civilian deaths as a means to demoralize the U.S. and native Iraqi armies, and leave locals too traumatized to defend themselves, let alone side with a democratic regime.

Regardless of the time periods – the thick of WWII, and the second American-led war with Iraq – each film is painfully accessible because the personal dramas are very real.

Back Room does suffer from the romanticism of the era, but only briskly, because while Sammy Rice has a love interest named Susan (essentially the long-suffering girlfriend), their relationship is complex – particularly for the era. They're engaged in premarital sex, she more or less lives in his flat, and their understanding of each other is often conveyed through physical reactions instead of dialogue.

The Hurt Locker somewhat deals with William James’ love interest in the same fashion, but wife Connie is seen in two periods: via a phone call (and in shadow) while he’s in Iraq, and in person when he’s on leave, as he tries to be the father/husband he clearly has little interest in furthering. Like Back Room, the dialogue exchanges are minimal – often it's what the characters are skirting over that forms the centre of their dialogue – but they too are having a tough time making emotional connections.

Sammy's fate with Susan gives us more closure (more so for male viewers, since the script's viewpoint favours the needs of the self-destructive lead in dire need of support), whereas James chooses the only fate for which he's best suited: leaving his better half and child pretty much alone again after another failed poke at marital normalcy.

The teams of munitions experts are also quite different, because in Back Room, Sammy leads a group of experts who collectively help him solve the mechanics of the mysterious German bombs; James, in turn, is pretty much a solo brainiac: one man covers his back, and another provides support in scoping and mapping out the plan of action, but the knowledge base of disarming an IED resides in his man's head.

Jones is an often distant but decent leader who looks out for his men when their personal problems are mucking up their professional lives; he may ostensibly support and be willing to die for his team, but he's also abusive towards them, as when he rides one like a cowboy during a heavy drinking celebration.

The use of alcohol is also different in each film, because Sammy Rice uses the drinking to numb his sense of immense inadequacy as a man (his tin foot prevents him from dancing with his girl) as pops potent painkillers for the war injury that smarts him perpetually. He keeps a straight delineation between beer and whiskey, though: the fine bottle of aged whiskey that rests lucratively on the end table is both a challenge in self control as well as an antidote for when his loneliness reaches rock bottom.

Booze in Hurt Locker is purely recreational; it's a cool-down drink for the after hours, but it's not shown as a means to numb senses as regularly as in Back Room, perhaps because their work is wholly military, whereas Sammy is a civilian expert under contract to the military, free from routine military patrols or responsibilities, and is called onto site only when it's serious.

Music, as well as sound effects in both films are kept minimal, unless they're designed to emphasize an emotional point – whether it's the power of a bomb through its blast, or sound effects mimicking trauma or emotional turmoil.

The docu-drama style is more prevalent in Hurt Locker, since director Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark) mimics the grit and dryness of the locale, as well as the nerve-racking fear of insurgents luring American soldiers into their cross-hairs.

(There are several scenes in Hurt Locker where we’re treated to the differing levels of threat towards the bomb team: when they’re brought into an area secured by a large U.S. presence; when they have adequate support to fend off or keep away rogue factions; and when they sense a trap. Being baited is a major risk, and a scene where the group discovers they’re being videotaped by a terrorist awaiting a planned attack is just plain terrifying.)

Bigelow also incorporates cutaways of dust devils, a three-legged cat, and snapshots of sunsets or terrain, whereas Powell and Pressburger are more concerned in covering the civilian level stresses Sammy has to endure: bureaucracy, the quest for profit over human lives, and making an on site call when his own life seems to be disintegrating.

The Hurt Locker deserves all the accolades and attention, but it’s worth your while to check out The Small Back Room, which Criterion released in another fine DVD special back in 2008.

The film was part of the usual nods Elwy Yost made to Powell and Pressburger during the 80s and early 90s in Saturday Night at the Movies, and perhaps the key film that alerted me to the brilliance of the directors. The pair’s prior film – The Red Shoes (1948) – usually gets the lion’s share of critical attention (which it rightly deserves), but this quiet little wartime drama still stands out among the dated melodrama of the forties, and the heroic feel-good movies with neat wrap-ups. The Hurt Locker may never have been inspired by The Small Back Room, but it owes a bit of gratitude to the directors’ pioneering attempt to bring some grim maturity to theatres.



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