tears of the sun (2003)


director: antoine fuqua

bruce willis, monica belluci, eamonn walker

The opening scenes of Antoine Fuqua’s Tears of the Sun prepare us for the sort of military action drama we’ve come to know well. On an aircraft carrier "off the coast of Africa", Bruce Willis’ crack team of Navy SEALS are preparing for a mission. The colours have been leached of any vivid hue; everything is the colour of gun metal and burnt toast, and despite the sun it seems overcast, even indoors.

The government of Nigeria has been deposed in a military coup, and the awful, familiar cycle of butchery and retribution has begun. Willis, whose blinkless stare clearly denotes some buried inner torment, is to infiltrate the mountainous jungle and extract a doctor (Monica Belluci), an American by marriage working in a mission hospital soon to be overrun by the rebel army.

After a trek through the jungle with her native staff in tow, Willis reveals that he never meant to leave with anyone else but her. The helicopters take off and fly over the mission, now the scene of a brutal massacre, and Willis orders them to turn back, putting the children and the injured on the choppers and vowing to lead the rest to safety.

So far, so so - a competent war story, infused with the sort of moral crisis we know will be resolved happily, inevitably with the doctor in Willis’ wounded arms. But then the film takes a strange, troubling, but brave turn when the SEALS come across the scene of a village massacre, the sort of nightmare familiar to anyone who’s followed the all-too depressing history of modern Africa. Tears of the Sun goes from being a glum, dispirited sort of action flick to a fantasy of intervention, a chance to wonder just how military strength might have changed history in Somalia, Kosovo and, especially, Rwanda.

When they come across the scene of an ethnic cleansing in progress, Willis and his men decisively intervene, their simmering outrage finding a target in the rebel platoon of killers and torturers, the worst of which is dispatched with relish by Willis’ second-in-command, played by Oz’s Eamonn Walker. From this point on, Fuqua’s message dominates the film, an unmistakable demand for the use of unfashionable US military intervention summed up by the Edmund Burke quote that flashes onscreen before the credits roll: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

The film was apparently the scene of a struggle between Willis’ Hollywood instincts, demanding more romance and action, and Fuqua’s intent on making a statement. The director won, and despite an unfortunate but inevitable ending that gushes saccharine idealism, Tears of the Sun might be remembered as the movie that tried to sell the concept of a just war when talking about war in any positive light was popularly unfashionable. It's a significant statement; it's a shame that it couldn't have been made by a better film.