Cinematographer Oden Roberts makes his directorial debut with this low key but closely observed drama which puts the focus firmly on the business side of the military-industrial complex.
It is 2007 and America is ramping up its involvement in Iraq, necessitating more feet to fill the boots that will soon be on the ground. Our field of play here is an Army recruiting office, where two very different soldiers are tasked with convincing largely young, impoverished, and uneducated people to find out if they can be all they can be. Sergeant Harris (Lew Temple) is a veteran of the recruiting office, a cynic who knows how to work the recruiting system to maximise his results. Sergeant Mason (Clayne Crawford) has recently returned from combat deployment and has first hand knowledge at what these young people are getting sent into. Conflict is, of course, inevitable.
Has there ever been a film that looks at the coalface of marketing the military before? Our characters’ remit here is to sell the idea of a life in the Army to a never-ending parade of young hopefuls, and the techniques they use will be familiar to anyone who has put in time in a commission-based sales role – or, indeed, seen Glengarry Glen Ross. Of course, the motivating force being applied isn’t the carrot of a fat bonus, but the stick of overseas deployment – something Mason relishes, but Harris, a rear echelon lifer, is mortified by. Thus, to save his comfortable position (and his own skin) Harris uses every trick in the book to hit his recruiting targets, while Mason, himself suffering PTSD, becomes increasingly disgusted with the whole operation.
The film, made on an incredibly low budget, lives in the interplay between the two, and thanks to strong performances, it works a treat. A Fighting Season‘s area of inquiry is the morality of marketing the military, and the dubious snake oil tactics used to entice the vulnerable to sign up for a hitch. It’s a workplace drama, in effect, but never lets you forget the stakes are literally life and death. This is a strong debut and a fascinating look at an under-represented facet of the military machine.
After WW2, German POWs were used to dig up (with their bare hands) and defuse the millions of landmines buried under the beaches of Denmark. It’s a stark historical fact, but not without some complex ethical implications given the enormity of what the Nazis had perpetrated. In this particular story, that’s intensified by the German soldiers in question being ingenuous and rather likeable teenage boys, who were forced into the army just before the war ended.
And then there is the Danish soldier who’s been given the task of training, overseeing, and disciplining them. When we first see Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller), he’s viciously bullying and bashing some of his new charges, and – as if this physical behaviour were not self-explanatory enough – he then proceeds to spell out his utter contempt and hatred for them. It’s not revealed whether Rasmussen’s brutality is a product of the war or simply inherent in his personality, but in any case, his apparent contempt for Germans is shared by his fellow Danish (and British) servicemen, not to mention the odd civilian.
What follows is of course often visceral, but there are also subtler and even gentler elements, particularly in the scenes depicting conversations between the boys. These serve both to stave off monotony and to flesh out the characters. The risk of sudden death by explosion creates a constant bedrock of suspense and tension, and has been used as the basis of at least one classic film (The Wages Of Fear) and another excellent one (The Hurt Locker). While Land Of Mine is not in the same league as either of those, it’s gripping, well-acted by all, and a good, strong tale well told. It’s also that uncommon thing: a movie that touches on the theme of redemption without descending into bathos or inanity.