Hotel Rwanda

Nick Nolte and Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



7 April


Rwandan genocide starts, 1994

On this day in 1994, a period of mass killing lasting 100 days started in Rwanda, during which around 20% of the country’s population was killed. The violence was organised by the government, targeted against the Tutsi tribe and carried out by members of the Rwandan army, the police, as well as government backed militias and members of the Hutu population. Between 500,000 and a million people were killed, largely by machete, as neighbour turned on neighbour, the Hutus gaining the land of their Tutsi neighbours once they’d murdered them. The grievance of the Hutus against the Tutsis was old and to say they had no cause would be naive. However, the ferocity of the attack was astonishing. As the world stood back and debated whether genocide was in fact occurring, the genocide raged through the country, until it was brought to a halt by the army of Rwandan Patriotic Front (Tutsis) after it toppled the government.




Hotel Rwanda (2004, dir: Terry George)

Films about genocide always risk comparison with Schindler’s List. They also suffer from what you might call the Schindler Problem – how do you serve up mass slaughter as light entertainment? The answer, as Hotel Rwanda proves, is that you create a strong drama first and use the historical detail for authenticity, rather than getting bogged down in the small print. You also need actors who can punch through the worthiness. Don Cheadle in his first big starring role fits the bill perfectly, and there’s no trace of the gorblimey cockney from Ocean’s 11 a couple of years before. Instead Cheadle humanises what might easily have been a saintly cipher – playing Paul Rusesabagina, the decent, methodical Hutu hotel manager saving hundreds of Tutsis from death by machete in his abandoned luxury hotel. Sophie Okonedo plays his Tutsi wife, wondering whether her husband’s charitable actions are going to have personal repercussions. And there’s Nick Nolte, solid as granite as the United Nations peacekeeper who is powerless to stop the bloodshed because he’s only allowed to act in self-defence. It’s the story of people being pushed incrementally towards heroism, not hero-types looking for a situation. Put simply, Hotel Rwanda is a proper film – well acted and well shot, engrossing and inspiring, whether you care a whole heap about dead Rwandans or not the slightest bit at all. And it’s a true story. There really was a hotel, the Hotel des Milles Collines, and a Paul Rusesabagina and a Nolte-like UN guy. True, the film doesn’t explain the background of the genocide, or its full extent. But it isn’t trying to, having gambled that the way to tell a big story is by shining a light on a small but important one.



Why Watch?


  • Don Cheadle’s performance
  • Director Terry George’s eye for shocking telltale detail
  • The great support cast includes Joaquin Phoenix
  • A history lesson compellingly taught


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Hotel Rwanda – at Amazon





The Thin Red Line

Nick Nolte in The Thin Red Line



In the mid-1990s it was more or less universally accepted that Terrence Malick had given up making films. He’d made Badlands in 1973 and Days of Heaven in 1978, both of them the sort of films that have critics coining new superlatives, but that was that. Then, 20 years after Days of Heaven, he came back as if from nowhere with his version of The Thin Red Line – there’d already been an adaptation of James Jones’s novel in 1964. And like Badlands and Days of Heaven it took a familiar genre – the war film in this case – and gave it a typically reserved Malickian treatment.

Malick’s WWII actioner is not exactly an exercise in turning war-film conventions on their head, though it certainly does do that. Instead of concentrating on one Rambo-style character while everyone and everything around is being blown into the next world, Malick shoots the film as if he were a visitor from that next world. Drifting from soldier to soldier, his camera glides through the landscape and makes as if to enter the soldiers’ souls. The soundtrack is spookily calm, sometimes silent, particularly in the big action scenes. Like all good war films, The Thin Red Line is not about moments of great heroism or dick-measuring hardware face-offs (though it does that, too). It’s about the equation that all wars turn on: how many soldiers is it worth losing in order to win? And what is the personal price of victory?

The film is also, as all Malick films seem to be at some level, about humanity’s fall from grace – paradise lost. Audiences who first saw it were perhaps not ready for such a meditative war film. They probably weren’t ready for Malick’s casting decisions either. There are lots of big names in the credits to The Thin Red Line – Sean Penn, John Travolta, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, Adrien Brody – though the focus of the drama is on lesser known names such as Jim Caviezel and Ben Chaplin. Though special mention in despatches must go to Nick Nolte, brilliant as the rabid lieutenant-colonel hungry for war glory, and one of the few carry-overs from the more traditional war epic.

Was Malick’s return welcomed with open arms? The answer is mixed. Critical reaction ranged from “cliched, self-indulgent” (, and “heartfelt but not profound” (Roger Ebert) to “a genuinely epic cine-poem” (Time Out London). Whichever way you look at it his film made an interesting counterblast to Saving Private Ryan, which for six months had been the war movie everyone was talking about. And it broke the logjam – Malick, one of the great stylists of cinema, was back.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


The Thin Red Line – at Amazon





Cape Fear

Robert De Niro as Max Cady in Cape Fear

Robert Mitchum as Max Cady in Cape Fear

It’s compare and contrast time. Max Cady, a psychopath recently out of stir after a long stretch for rape, sets out to terrorise lawyer Sam Bowden who he believes withheld information about his case at the trial which resulted in him going down. The original, directed by cult British director J. Lee Thompson in 1962, starred Robert Mitchum as the avenging psycho (a role he’d perfected in 1955’s Night Of The Hunter) and Gregory Peck as the apparently decent lawyer. Both turn up again in cameos in Martin Scorsese’s remake, in which things aren’t quite so clear cut. This time around Bowden (now played by Nick Nolte) is a lousy lawyer, and a philandering husband to boot, and Cady (Robert De Niro) isn’t just bad, he’s positively evil. The later version amps up the sex, too. Remember the infamous scene where Bowden’s daughter (Juliette Lewis) sucks the finger of Max Cady in the empty school theatre? And of course there’s Scorsese’s wham-bam hurricane-tossed ending. But sex, a big budget and lots of special effects to one side, the consensus seems to have it that Thompson’s is the better film, that drama as stormy as this works best when set in an age of innocence. As well as an elemental good versus evil thrust, Thompson also has Bernard Herrmann’s jangly score to help him along too, plus his instinct for the pace of a scene. Scorsese is, to be fair to him, after something more nuanced. His isn’t a clear-cut world of good v evil – everyone has done something that stinks in his Cape Fear. But does his finessing of moral positions make for a more satisfying, more humane drama, or a less dynamic film? Or both? Coming one year after Goodfellas Scorsese’s Cape Fear was fighting not just Thompson’s film but his own reputation.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


Cape Fear (1962) – at Amazon

Cape Fear (1991) – at Amazon