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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Post-apocalyptic déjà vu

Here’s a question that keeps nagging me. Why does the news coverage of the war in Afghanistan look so familiar to me?

There is something about the images that we television viewers in the West are being fed that makes me feel like we’ve seen this before. It’s the bombed-out desert landscapes, the sun-parched expanses lacking vegetation, the scruffy armed men riding creaky old Jeeps over endless dirt roads shooting anybody because life is cheap and the one with the most guns wins, the sense of civilization having completely broken down. Why do I get déjà vu when I see helpless women and children huddled in camps, waiting for some warlord to change sides and offer them hope in the form of armed protection? Waiting for a stranger to stride into town and be a hero?

Wait! I’ve got it! This isn’t a country. It’s a Mad Max movie!

Mel Gibson would be right at home, driving into town looking for his next tank of gasoline, before he gets sidetracked into aiding the helpless civilians. Over the years, the post-apocalyptic action adventure has become a veritable genre of its own, with Mad Max alone spawning two sequels (Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome) as well as numerous imitators—until Kevin Costner ruined things with Waterworld and The Postman. Of course, this storyline didn’t even begin with sci-fi action flicks. Before Mad Max it was American gunslingers in Mexico coming to the rescue of peasants caught in the crossfire of banditos in flicks like The Magnificent Seven and its sequels. And before that it was Japanese swordsmen in The Seven Samurai.

But this raises an interesting question: has Hollywood ever made any movies that are actually about Afghanistan? It is probably a safe bet that there will be a few made in the future. But have there been any made in the past? The answer, as far as I can tell after a period of extensive research that consisted of spending five minutes with an old version of Microsoft Cinemania, is: not very often.

The Soviet Union’s protracted war in that country figured as a plot device in at least two action/adventure movies of the 1980s that I am aware of. It was a component of the typically complicated plot of the 1987 James Bond film, The Living Daylights. It was also the locale (and I had completely forgotten this) for Sylvester Stallone’s rescue of his old military mentor (Richard Crenna) in that 1988 classic Rambo III. Given the fact that Timothy Dalton only played Bond one more time after The Living Daylights and Stallone never played Rambo again after Rambo III, one has to wonder that if Afghanistan is as unlucky for Hollywood invaders as it has been historically for military invaders.

The best Hollywood film made about Afghanistan has to be, hands down, well, I don’t know if it was really about Afghanistan. It dealt with a place called Kafiristan, which has to be close, if not actually part of Afghanistan, right? I seem to remember them going over the Khyber Pass, so that would put them in Afghanistan, wouldn’t it? Anyway, I’m talking about John Huston’s 1975 classic, The Man Who Would Be King. Based on a story by Rudyard Kiping, it had two great stars in Sean Connery and Michael Caine. Interestingly, Huston originally had Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable in mind for the leads, but that dream casting was thwarted by Bogart’s death in 1957.

A rip-roarin’ adventure yarn set in the Victorian age, the story is basically about how greed ultimately defeats itself, not unlike another Huston classic (which did star Bogart, in 1948) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan are two former British soldiers who think that their guns and military experience will make it easy for them to take over a backwater kingdom and become its (fabulously wealthy) rulers. The cockeyed plan nearly succeeds when, through a strange series of events, Dravot is taken for some kind of deity. But in the end, this is a cautionary tale about the folly of being an arrogant foreigner in a strange and violent land. The bad luck of this pair wasn’t just an idea for a movie. It is an experience that has been lived in this region by a number of countries, including the British and the Soviets.

Will the Americans and their allies (the Brits again) follow suit in the current incursion? Fortunately, the foreign commander-in-chief this time doesn’t seem interested in empire and conquest in Afghanistan, just a little terrorist cleansing and nation building. Daniel and Peachy were after riches beyond their wildest dreams. Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice and Powell are mostly interested in keeping their own country free of invaders. (Besides, I don’t think Afghanistan has any oil.) Rather, it is a certain charismatic Saudi-born cleric and his Saudi, Egyptian and Pakistani followers who are the imperious foreigners in Afghanistan this time. And, in the end, they are getting the same treatment as their predecessors.

Heck, if Daniel and Peachy were still around, they would probably be heading over the Khyber Pass again to try collecting that $25 million reward.

-S.L., 29 November 2001


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