War films, which bear a strong affinity to action but are distinguished by large numbers of extras and military paraphernalia, probably started with DW Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, featuring perhaps the first battle scenes on the silver screen. Landmarks that contributed to the technical development of cinema as a whole include the Odessa Steps scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 Soviet film Battleship Potemkin.
The war genre was often used by governments as a propaganda tool, especially in wartime, with anti-communist American films being the most obvious case. But it was also used to communicate an anti-war message. Cold War-era productions from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Apocalypse Now and Oliver Stone’s 1986 Platoon to Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Full Metal Jacket are a case in point.
Arab war films invariably deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict, with the majority celebrating the October War victory of 1973.
Most — Hossameddin Mustafa’s Al-Rossassa La Tazal fi Gaibi (The Bullet is Still in my Pocket) or Nader Galal’s Bedur, both made in hurry to capitalise on patriotic feeling in 1974 — are shallow in terms of drama, character and artistic integrity. More complex and self-critical works include Youssef Chahine’s Al-Osfour (The Sparrow) and Ali Abdel-Khalek’s Oghnia ala’l-Mamar (A Song on the Passage), both made in 1972 and dealing with the 967 defeat and the War of Attrition (1968-1970).
Produced by Hisham Abdel-Khalek, written and directed by Sherif Arafa and co-written by Amir Taema, Al-Mamar (The Passage) is a newly produced war film on the Arab-Israeli conflict competing for the box-office revenues of Eid Al-Fitr. Arafa, who is well-known for commercial action flicks like Mafia (2002), Al-Gazira (The Island, 2007) and Welad Al-Am (Cousins, 2009), employs the same format.
The drama is triggered by a low point — the 1967 defeat: the film opens with chaos in Sinai a few days before Israel’s decisive 5 June attack — which leaves Egyptians like the protagonist, an army colonel named Nour (Ahmed Ezz), deeply traumatised. Subplots might have provided romantic and comic relief, but Arafa keeps those to a minimum focusing on the five battles at the centre of the film’s substance. The battle scene is impressive but Nour, who is hit by a missile while trying to shoot down fighter jets, ends up with nothing more than a few scratches on his face. This prompted laughter among the audience.
Nour’s trauma is not sufficiently developed. There is a scene of him staring at nothing at home before he talks to his wife (Hend Sabri) about divorce, only to end up relenting — hugging her and their child — when she gives him support and encouragement. In another scene he is furious with a telephone operator who ignores him once he realises he is an army officer (such incidents were common at the time), and he takes out his anger on all kinds of people until he is spoken to by a police officer who explains to him the nature of the Egyptian character.
Equally banal is the story of the army engineer, Ahmed (Mohamed Al-Sharnoubi), who breaks his engagement following the defeat, and the brave Upper Egyptian sniper, Helal (Mohamed Farag), who refuses to take time off because he cannot face his father until Egypt wins the war. Many such tropes were seen in 1970s war films. Other incidents, like Nour’s clash with a naval captain (Ahmed Salah Hosni) have the added drawback of being dramatically pointless and too short.
Using army accounts of the real-life commando feats of such legendary special forces officers Ibrahim Al-Refaai, who distinguished himself during the War of Attrition, the film moves onto its main topic: an attack on one of the important divisions of the Israeli army in Sinai. Here too the traditional hero-villain approach is employed, with an important Israeli officer (Iyad Nassar) playing Nour’s antagonist. Treating Egyptian POWs harshly and even killing two of them in cold blood to force a third to reveal army secrets, he is a manifestation of evil.
Arafa uses another mainstay of war films, male bonding, to add colour to the battle scene, emphasising differences within the Egyptian army with a Nubian as well as an Upper Egyptian and a reporter, Ihsan (Ahmed Rizk), who used to cover belly dancers but has now joined the army. He is bullied by the others, being an overweight civilian, only to become close friends with them all. Arafa also includes a patriotic Bedouin guide (Mohamed Gomaa) emphasising the role of the people of Sinai during that time. Here as in the heroic stories, the film is moralising and derivative.
More important is the direction of the battle scenes, probably Arafa’s main target. It has been said that the production used a crew of technicians from the US and of course benefited from the support of the Armed Forces to shoot the battles, which are very well executed and edited indeed. This side of the direction together with the technical quality — accessories, settings, cinematography and editing — could’ve transformed this film into a real epic had the script been less shallow.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A passage to Egypt
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