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
Alfred Hitchcock frequently described the difference between “surprise” and “suspense” in terms of a ticking bomb. If characters are sitting around a table and a bomb that neither the characters nor the viewers know about suddenly goes off, that’s surprise. If the same characters are sitting around a table and the viewer knows there’s a ticking bomb underneath them, that’s suspense – even the most banal things the characters say or do become compelling while we wait for the inevitable explosion. The lesson here is that if you want to create surefire suspense, make a film that is literally about a ticking bomb or bombs, and a character whose job it is to make sure they don’t go off.
The first such film was most likely Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Small Back Room (1949), in which David Farrar 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
Steve McQueen brought a natural authenticity to all of his roles, but the three years he spent in the Marines prior to becoming a film actor made him appear particularly authentic when he was playing a serviceman. Especially relevant to The Hurt Locker are the four McQueen films in which his prowess as a military man was directly related to his inability to function as a civilian. McQueen was so good at these kind of roles that he, in effect, created his own subgenre.
The War Lover (Philip Leacock 1962) 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.
Although credited to director Ralph Nelson, Soldier in the Rain (1963) was produced and written by Blake Edwards, and its score was composed by frequent Edwards collaborator, Henry Mancini. It looks, sounds, and feels like a Blake Edwards comedy-drama and is, in fact, a Blake Edwards film for all practical purposes – one of his most moving. McQueen plays good ol’ boy Eustis Clay, a peacetime soldier who idolizes his mentor, the wise and graceful Master Sergeant Maxwell Slaughter (Jackie Gleason). Gleason’s character has found a perfect home in the military. McQueen’s character can’t wait to get out, but when his mentor perishes in a barfight (protecting McQueen’s character, naturally), McQueen assumes his place as a career soldier.
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.