The reason why Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker succeeds where every other Iraq War movie made to date has failed has little to do with the war itself. Audiences have generally avoided films dealing with this unpopular – and probably unwinnable – conflict/occupation.
If The Hurt Locker seems as fresh and compelling as it does, it’s due in no small part to the way it combines two cinematic subgenres that no one ever thought to put together before – the bomb disposal film, and another subgenre that has scarcely been recognized as such, the Steve McQueen military film.
The Bomb Disposal Film
The first such film was most likely Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Small Back Room (1949), in which David Farrar (above) plays a British scientist working for the War Office whose job it is to defuse booby-trap devices dropped by the Nazis during World War II. Powell was justifiably proud of the film’s climactic sequence, a 17-minute set piece that puts us in a sand pit with the hero as he attempts to defuse one such device (a self-contained tour-de-force that Powell compared to his climactic ballet in The Red Shoes).
Note that the bomb disposal film does not have to be set in wartime. Richard Lester’s Juggernaut (1974) is about a bomb planted by a terrorist on an ocean liner during peacetime. Richard Harris plays the expert who attempts to defuse the bomb while the captured terrorist (Freddie Jones) speaking to him on long-distance telephone gives him advice (“Cut the blue wire”) that might be intentionally fatal.
Where The Small Back Room and Juggernaut save their big bomb disposal sequences for the films’ respective climaxes, The Hurt Locker *opens* with such a sequence, and follows it with one bomb disposal scene after another, each bomb to be defused presenting a scenario of increasing difficulty and fiendishness – bombs hidden in human corpses, an unwilling live person who is encaged inside a bomb . . . . This is a narrative that plays to director Bigelow’s strengths, her talent for communicating visceral physical experience (see especially, Strange Days), and for “putting the audience through it.”
The Steve McQueen Military Film
The War Lover (Philip Leacock 1962, above) initiated the series. McQueen played a World War II bomber captain named Buzz Rickson, antagonist to the lieutenant played by Robert Wagner, the real hero of the film. (Both are rivals for the affection of the same girl.) McQueen’s Captain Rickson is arrogant and insubordinate, but is tolerated by his superiors because he is the best bomber pilot in his group. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that McQueen’s character is, in fact, a psychopath. The film’s message? The psychopath flourishes in wartime because war itself is psychopathic.
In Don Siegel’s Hell is for Heroes (also 1962), McQueen played a variation on this character, not a villain but an anti-hero, a tight-lipped loner named Reese (left) who alienates everyone around him and who is alienated himself, but who proves to be the ideal man to have beside you in a foxhole when things get ugly. His final act of heroism is also an act of self-destruction. Again, the message is that the qualities that make the character unfit to function as a civilian are the same qualities that make him a consummate warrior.
McQueen plays Jake Holman, Machinist’s Mate aboard a gunboat, the USS San Pablo, patrolling China’s Yangzte River during a 1920’s occupation by American armed forces. (The Vietnam parallels were hard to ignore.) McQueen’s Holman is another alienated loner, a mechanic who prefers engines to people. Yet, in spite of himself, he finds himself forming unlikely bonds with various individuals who cross his path, the Chinese “coolie” (Mako) who assists him in the engine room, and a missionary schoolteacher (Candice Bergen). This was the only role that ever earned McQueen an Oscar nomination. Playing a character who was forced to join the military as an alternative to being imprisoned as a juvenile delinquent, McQueen’s Holman was his final and most definitive embodiment of someone who felt more at home in the military than in the “real world.”
Jeremy Renner’s performance as Sergeant William James in The Hurt Locker continues and develops the McQueen-created subgenre of military characters who can only function in uniform. He even resembles McQueen physically to a certain degree. By combining the bomb disposal subgenre with the Steve McQueen military film, director Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have made a film that works on two tracks – as both suspense thriller and character study.