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If you love the colour beige or taupe, can’t get enough fawn, dun and khaki, you’ll have an extra affection for Tobruk, the 2008 Czech movie written and directed by Václav Marhoul.

It’s his second, after the Philip Marlowe-spoofing Smart Philip (Mazany Filip) of 2003, and has little in common with the 1967 film of the same name directed by Arthur Hiller and starring Rock Hudson and George Peppard.

In fact it’s closer to The Red Badge of Courage, the 1951 war movie set during the American Civil War and starring Audie Murphy, since both are to greater (the older film) and lesser (this one) extents adaptations of Stephen Crane’s 1894 novel about a soldier finding he doesn’t have the right stuff and then wishing he, too, could have the red badge (ie a wound) marking out the brave guys who at least fought rather than ran.

One thing it does share with the 1967 film is the setting – North Africa – where a battalion of Czechoslovak volunteers did in reality assist in the fight against the combined forces of Rommel and the Italians during the siege of Tobruk. Here we’re following Privates Jiri Pospíchal (Jan Meduna) and Jan Lieberman (Petr Vanek) as the new recruits are inducted into their battalion – Pospíchal idealistic, likeable, outgoing, adept; Lieberman pragmatic, self-contained, recalcitrant, a bit useless – where the two men are turned from raw rookies into soldiers, and become loyal friends in the process.

Familiar stuff, all of it. The tough training regime, the pitiless sergeant, the boozy camaraderie of a weekend on leave, the small talk of the downtimes between – someone noodling away on the harmonica. What will you do after the war? Have you got a girl back home? If you’ve ever seen a war film you’ve seen this stuff. But Marhoul knows we have and does an expert job in compressing it all into about half an hour, leaving the bulk of the movie for an examination of the way men react when subjected to the test of being in mortal danger. Fight or run?

The battalion in action
The men in action

Everything, as suggested up top, is mid brown – the uniforms, the sand, the vegetation, the air thick with dust, which is partly down to the way the excellent DP Vladimír Smutný shoots it, but it goes beyond that. This isn’t a “bathed in glory” war movie (it can’t be) and Marhoul keeps everything in the mid range – emotions, actions, moments of high drama, the performances of his leads.

Where other directors might favour a big bang, Marhoul goes for the small detail – flies buzzing around a wound, the way even a large quantity of blood simply disappear into the thirsty sand in a second, or how a soldier takes a shower, standing in a basin while a fellow soldier tips water over his head from a cup.

Moments of high drama are few but they have impact. Shocks, when they come hit home – like a soldier having his legs blown clean off, or when our anti-hero suddenly comes across a dead soldier whose face is still being eaten away by insects, but Marhoul also has an interest in the sort of day-to-day physicality (like the mechanics of taking a shit) that you don’t get in a John Wayne movie.

Unshowy and unspectacular, all the way down to the direction, which doesn’t draw attention to itself. Marhoul, like the soldiers he’s following, is just doing his job, a man in service of his calling.

Lieberman is a Jew (“Jew boy,” he’s called when he first arrives) but though there’s obvious anti-Semitism, it’s also just a routine feature of army life, all part of fitting in and becoming a unit. In many ways this is more Lieberman’s story than Pospíchal’s, which is odd considering the way events are set to run.

Redemption is the ultimate destination, with both Lieberman and Pospíchal finding theirs in different ways, in a machine-gun emplacement where a show of extraordinary courage is suddenly required.

Admirable in many ways, particularly Marhoul’s bold treatment of generic material, Tobruk’s novel approach is fighting an uphill battle. The less-is-more ethos extends all the way to the acting style of Meduna and Vanek, which makes access to their characters tough going especially in the scant 100 minutes of screen time. What makes men run, or stay and fight, when push comes to shove? Tobruk isn’t the place for easy answers.

Tobruk – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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