And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear
Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.
And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.
And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.
Since then the Mark of Cain has become part of popular fiction; the idea that killers and performers of iniquitous acts are somehow marked, in their soul if not visibly. (The biblical description of the mark as a warning not to slay Cain and end his suffering appears to have fallen by the wayside). This British TV film from 2007, The Mark of Cain, deals with that sort of mark — invisible from the outside, perhaps, but visible to the bearer.
It is a troubling film, in the mid-2000s genre of bad “westerners abusing prisoners” films that Hollywood revisited in Zero Dark Thirty. It is promoted as “ripped from the headlines,” which it is not, particularly; so we’re quite disinclined to like it, and we found it disturbing and tendentious.
But. But… what kind of a “but” can we possibly offer now? Only this: it is a powerful film with bold characters and themes, even if its underlying messages: (1) that British soldiers are bigger monsters than Middle Eastern terrorists; and (2) that the biggest monsters go unpunished — are rebarbative. As a drama it is strong and gripping, the writing is taut and the characters are fully drawn, at least, the British characters. (The Iraqi characters are essentially props in this British morality play). Because the characters are a detestable bunch, it’s not an enjoyable movie. So it is, at once, a strong and compelling movie, and one that is an ordeal to sit through.
The essence of the story is this: a group of seemingly ordinary British squaddies (in the fictitious Northdale Regiment) are deployed to Basra, Iraq. They face an incomprehensible populace, in which hostile elements move invisibly. They want to shoot back, but have no targets. When they’re finally engaged by small arms fire, it’s shocking. Several soldiers are ineffective for one reason or other; one freezes at the wheel of an immobilized Land Rover. A popular officer tries to get him off the X, but an RPG takes both of their lives.
Later, they get a tip that the insurgents involved in that contact resided in a particular village. They seize several men from the village, and hold them in their camp; the military police are delayed in picking them up, and a sergeant suggests that they give the Iraqis a thrashing. The reluctant soldiers manage to peer-pressure themselves into doing it, with one sensitive, introspective boy needing to be bullied into it. But in the end, they all beat the Iraqis.
And that would have been the end of it… if one of them hadn’t taken pictures. After they return from the depoyment, an ex-girlfriend releases the pictures, and all hell breaks loose. The officers and NCOs circle the wagons. The sergeant instigator is not in any of the incriminating photos; he’s in the clear. The soldiers who were proceed to court martial.
One, in particular, the same guy who had to be dragooned into it in the first place, takes it very hard. He obsesses about the Mark of Cain, and about the way, in his case, loyalty trumped moral courage. He finally acts on the understanding he reached, and then another one of the squaddies confesses to the crime and enumerates what everyone else did, too. The film ends tragically for everyone — including the viewer.
The weapons and equipment the British troops display seem generally correct; we did think the combat vehicles were old, lightweight stuff that might have been more fitting in a movie set in South Armagh in 1972. The rifles and LMGs looked right. Of course, we’re not British troopies, so we might be missing something. The combat scenes are quite short vis-a-vis the movie’s overall length.
So we have finally reached the end of the review, and a bottom line is needed. We have to say, we suppose we are glad we watched the movie, but we won’t watch it again, and won’t make a habit of recommending it. We’re as ambivalent about it, then, as we were some 800 words ago.