Title: The Patrol
Director: Tom Petch
Major players: Nav Sidhu, Nicholas Beveney, Ben Righton
Out of five? 3.5
The DVD release of Tom Petch’s debut feature, The Patrol, has been timed perfectly. After all, this is the year when British – and, indeed, international – forces pull out of Afghanistan. The soldier-turned-writer/director has used his first film – and, in fact, the first film on the conflict per se – to ask some serious questions about British involvement.
A six-man patrol and its Captain is working alongside the Afghan Army to keep the Taliban out of a remote town. But the resistance from the enemy is such that what should have been a three day patrol turns into double figures. The resulting problems mount up – serious injury, low ammunition, disillusioned soldiers and rising tensions – to the point where even the longest serving member of the team begins to question their role in the war.
The film immediately pitches us into a hostile Afghanistan – a barren, unforgiving landscape, bleached by a merciless sun and slashed by a dirt track scar. The two military vehicles travelling across it are completely out of place, and totally exposed on all sides. It’s an extended image that the film returns to regularly and, in fact, the entire film has a bleached look: there is just one scene with any greenery and water.
Over the top of that lengthy opening shot are two voices in what sounds like an interview, although it soon becomes clear it’s more than that. It’s a military enquiry, with the Captain being questioned by a military judge – voiced by Tom Petch himself. Again, the voices return throughout the film, providing insights into both the Army’s attitude to the conflict and the continual struggles faced by the Captain, who becomes increasingly out of touch with his men.
The enemy is invisible, adding to the tension of the situation and the sense of alienation. Their fighters are never seen – only the trace from their weapons – but we do get regular glimpses of what is probably their eyes and ears. A solitary man in a white shirt on a motorbike always seems to be around, especially when the patrol is under attack. We don’t know for sure that he’s Taliban, but his continual and watchful presence makes it more than likely. And when we see the patrol at the start of the film, the feeling that both the audience and the enemy are seeing much the same thing is inescapable. It’s a feeling that never leaves.
The cast is made up of unknowns, adding to the authenticity of the film, although at times they veer more towards being types than individuals. Taff (Owain Arthur), who is eventually injured, is the joker in the pack, resisting his Captain’s attempts to get him to smoke away from the rest of the group, while their second-in-command, Lieutenant Bradshaw (Daniel Fraser) tows the party line to the letter and has an authoritarian style of leadership. By way of contrast, Captain Richardson (Ben Righton) never looks comfortable in charge of the men and tries to combine being a leader with being one of the lads. Neither approach works.
As the film progresses, the group is increasingly worn down and literally diminished. Taff is seriously injured, one of the vehicles is destroyed and ammunition and food supplies get low. Tensions rise, equipment is constantly criticised and then they find themselves another man down. Stab is the medical officer but he’s also a TA reservist and, as such, gets more than a little flack, from Smudge in particular. While his youth and fresh face create a less than accurate impression of TAs, his breakdown under attack is the final straw, even though the rest of the men regard him with ill-disguised contempt. He’s not equipped to cope with the situation and the question is loud and clear. If the future British Army is going to be made up of increasing numbers of reservists who are expected to serve in the same way as professional soldiers, how will they manage? The implied answer isn’t a positive one.
The Patrol moves slowly towards its climax but, when it happens, it comes quickly and the film is wrapped up in double quick time. If anything, it’s too fast and abrupt. And the voice of the Captain at the enquiry reinforces just how futile the whole exercise has been. They leave so that the Taliban can walk straight back in again. And the white shirted man on the motorbike is still there, watching them go.
The Patrol is released on DVD on Monday, 21 April.