When art is incapable of matching life
Our political world is now represented on the stage weeks after the
By Robert Fisk
Independent" -- -- Art and reality have a strange
relationship. Take Stuff Happens, David Hare's account of the
build-up to war in Iraq, its title taken from Donald Rumsfeld's
reaction to the widespread looting and pillage on 11 April 2003. But
one of the most powerful scenes in the play is Colin Powell's
appearance before the UN Security Council on 5 February.
I was sitting in the UN chamber at the time and my notes of the
meeting show considerable cynicism and a good deal of disbelief on
my part. I was dumbfounded by the cheap pictures of a mobile
chemical weapons laboratory - it was supposed to be in a train, of
all places - and the nonsensical transcript of a conversation
between two of Saddam's henchmen ("consider it done, boss"). But
only in the text of Hare's play do I realise what I missed.
"My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by
sources, solid sources ..." Powell says. "These are not assertions.
What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid
intelligence." How come I didn't take this down in my notes? How
come I missed the biggest whopper of them all? The source for the
mobile weapons lab is "an eyewitness, an Iraqi chemical engineer".
In fact, the "source" was in Germany and had never been interviewed
by the CIA. And so on and on.
And the effect of Hare's play is devastating - far, far worse than
the original Powell performance which I witnessed at first hand. Is
that the effect of art or artifice? Maybe both, because it is now
standard fare to watch our political world represented on the stage
only weeks or days after the real thing.
It didn't used to be that way. Although Sassoon's and Owen's poetry
were contemporary with the war they condemned, it was a long time
before the stage caught up. R C Sherriff's Journey's End came long
after 1918, and we had to wait for Graves and Blunden to tell it how
it was in the coming years. All Quiet on the Western Front took
years to be made - I am still fond of the second version with Ernest
Borgnine that was produced after the Second World War - and the
1939-45 conflict yielded few great movies at the time.
Yes, I'll tip my hat to Leslie Mitchell and The First of the Few and
to the forgotten 1942 film One of Our Aircraft is Missing. I used to
watch them all on commercial television on Sunday afternoons, along
with Casablanca, which was popular then more for the singing of the
"Marseillaise" than for "Play it Sam".
I would watch Colonel Strasser arriving at Rick's café - he was
played by a Jewish actor who might have died in Auschwitz had he not
been in Hollywood (where he died on a golf course in 1943) - and
always felt the best line was Bogey's half-drunken: "Of all the gin
joints in all the towns in all the world - and she has to walk into
Yet it took 17 years after the event before we watched a movie about
Dunkirk - John Mills's plucky infantryman is still strangely moving
although I never got over watching the blowing up of Teston bridge
near Maidstone which was doubling at the time for the battlefields
of northern France. By comparison, The Longest Day was a clunker.
It was the 1960s before Britain's film-makers really got down to
work on the Second World War. Of course, there were some favourites
made then - The Great Escape comes to mind, not least because it
contains cinema's most pointless word. As Hilts (Steve McQueen)
races his plundered German motorcycle towards the mountains of
Switzerland, he pulls to a halt and stares at the Swiss snows and
says - yes - he says: "Switzerland!"
But I am being unfair. The Battle of Britain - in which the music
was almost as good as the Spitfires - didn't duck the horrors of air
warfare and Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai was probably the
first cinema movie to show the terrible suffering of British PoWs in
Asia. But I think I'd have to conclude that one of the finest
post-war movies was A Bridge Too Far, the Arnhem epic which I now
realise - on re-watching it only the other day - is about the end of
empire and the tragedy its collapse imposes upon ordinary men and
women. Arnhem was utterly worthless and the sheer waste in that film
comes close to great art. It also gave Sean Connery one of his
There was, more than 20 years ago, a stunning three-hour television
drama on the Suez crisis which I watched in Beirut during the civil
war - and which comes close to Hare because the British government
was in 1956 caught lying almost as outrageously as the American
variety 47 years later.
So what comes next? Will we see new Hare works every time we go to
war? Or is there a three-year gap - which is the time it took to put
Flight 93 on celluloid? My own suspicion is that it won't take that
long - and that it will be our politicians who will be playing
themselves; in other words, that reality and the world of movies (or
stage plays) will become one.
After all, who can deny that the international crimes against
humanity of 11 September 2001 were not more powerful images, more
awesome in their effect, than Flight 93? Al-Qa'ida Productions got
there first - by timing the second aircraft into the Twin Towers to
coincide with real-time television coverage. This was why no claim
of responsibility was ever made. There was no need for such a claim
when the terrifying pictures told us all we needed to know. Which is
why the video butchers of Baghdad have now slotted themselves on to
the internet, showing near-live coverage of their decapitations.
Violence has now become so close to all our lives that art sometimes
seems incapable of matching the reality. Indeed, actors might be
losing their credibility. After all, wasn't the 43rd President of
the United States all dolled up in a jumpsuit when he mouthed the
greatest lie of all? Mission accomplished?
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited
Click on "comments" below to read or post comments -
Click Here For Comment Policy