Contributor; Derby, England
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How could anyone dismiss The Silent Army? It's a sensitive film about a deeply troubling real-world issue (child soldiers in East Africa), made by a director who clearly feels very strongly about the subject matter both from a personal perspective (he grew up in the region) and a humanitarian angle (it's the right thing to do).

Well... if anything, perhaps Jean Van De Velde cares a little too much? This should have been a hard-hitting look at the callous savagery of an empty war - two children, one a rural villager kidnapped and press-ganged into fighting for the rebel army, the other a chef's son desperate to save him. Instead it becomes something halfway between Blood Diamond and any random 1980s gung-ho action flick sent straight to video.

Plot points founder under the weight of too much saccharine melodrama, tension ebbs away as the script heads nowhere in particular and the potential significance is hamstrung by some particularly inept characterisation that comes painfully close to a parody of liberal white guilt.

How else to interpret it when barely five minutes in Abu, the poor black kid receives a video game controller carved out of wood from his father, then goes to play with Thomas, his affluent white best friend who cheerfully accepts this as par for the course? It's not as if it could never happen, more that in Van De Velde's hands it instantly comes across as a play for the audience's sympathy. Take the way it's the first thing the viewer is expected to focus on and the way the scene is set up, with echoes of the ridiculous moralising in Spike Lee's Inside Man.

How else to interpret it when Van De Velde spends so much time on an introductory sequence which firstly revolves around one of the most basic tragedies a family can suffer (blatant tugging on the heartstrings again), and secondly is arguably pointless? Stock characters abound, the dialogue grates and the acting barely passes muster. Ninety seconds of careful exposition would have had more effect.

And though the plot slowly gathers pace once the rebels raid Abu's village, the director undercuts this almost instantly with the realisation that yes, Thomas' father Eduard (the chef) really is going to indulge his son's naïve entreaties they go save his friend. There's no reasoning with him, not even any attempt to set out how stupidly dangerous this would be - Eduard battling with guilt over his shortcomings as a father consists of looking distracted at work while half-heartedly pleading with his son to drop the subject.

Whereupon Van De Velde doubles back yet again, unable to decide whether he ought to be lionising Eduard or mocking his incompetence. The authorities freeze him out with barely disguised contempt (one even making a clumsy Schindler's List reference) to which he can't find a comeback - yet we then get, in all seriousness, a jaded, attractive female aid worker won over by his dogged persistence who agrees to help him.

None of it ever gels, whether as thoughtful, considered politicising, pure escapism or anything in between. Every moment that does impress is promptly followed up with a cliché so tired and lifeless as to provoke actual mental distress at the wasted potential on display. Van De Velde is clearly far from Edward Zwick - he never once stoops to noble savage tropes or marginalising black characters - but he doesn't seem to understand how to make The Silent Army anything more than a feeble cry from the heart.

Compare it to Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire's Johnny Mad Dog; same basic plot points (can a child soldier be freed from virtual slavery?), but without the well-intentioned white protagonist and the sense of anguished urgency Sauvaire's is simply the better film. Johnny Mad Dog feels genuinely dangerous, almost unhinged, to the point it's impossible to predict who might live and who die. The same scenes could hardly be more different - both movies feature the rebels forcing a 'recruit' to murder a relative, say, but in Johnny Mad Dog it's a nightmare. In The Silent Army it feels far too much like something staged by Golan Globus.

Even genre film outclasses it. The Ford Brothers' African-set horror The Dead is a zombie movie through and through, sometimes to its detriment, but it still feels markedly more coherent and believable with a sense these people and this anonymous country have (or had) a life beyond the film. Van De Velde barely gives us any sense of history, any real feeling of place or any characterisation beyond tourist postcards laid to waste and a tormented family man inexplicably turning into a saint.

The Silent Army simply doesn't live up to any of its promise, from the saccharine opening to the stupidly contrived final setpiece. Jean Van De Velde and his crew are clearly eager to do something positive for what is unquestionably a humanitarian catastrophe with no easy solutions in sight, but they seem so desperate to prove one man can make a difference they lose all self-restraint and end up with a shiftless compromise between generic crowd-pleasing and flying the flag. There are countless better ways to entertain or educate yourself and as such, The Silent Army can't really be recommended.

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Ard VijnDecember 22, 2010 9:19 PM

Which version did you see Matthew? The cut which was shown in Cannes with great success, or the original called "White Light"? Judging by your review I'd be inclined to think it was the original...

Matthew LeeDecember 22, 2010 11:11 PM

Not sure. The press handout has the Cannes label in it, so I'd assume it was that cut... but, I mean, a lot of the problems I had with the film stem from lack of material, not too much of it. It was a hard one to write up because, well, how can you hate it? It's so worthy and everything, and the director clearly means what he says in the notes... but what I watched just didn't seem to gel with that at all.

I was partly swayed by having watched JOHNNY MAD DOG a day earlier, but I'd insist you can compare the two, and SILENT ARMY comes off very, very poorly in comparison. It tries to offer hope, where JOHNNY is pretty much a nightmare from start to finish, but SILENT ARMY goes too far in the opposite direction and just turns into a jumbled mess.

Ard VijnDecember 23, 2010 8:12 AM

Last year we tried to shoehorn "The Silent Army" into the Oscars as our (Dutch) offering at the expense of "Winter in Wartime", but it was denied on the basis of being a new cut of an existing movie ("White Light").
It was a very weird moment because the rules so strictly STATE that you're not allowed to use a re-cut, and the entire Dutch jury was publicly lambasted and fired on the spot. Finally, we offered "Winter in Wartime" (although it didn't get chosen into the final five...).

Incidentally, "White Light" had been received badly both by critics and audience alike when it was released half a year before "The Silent Army" got successful in Cannes. The general opinion was that despite obvious good intentions it still looked like a vanity piece for Dutch singer Marco Borsato (and indeed it contained a song by him over the end credits).
So for Cannes the film was recut: Marco's song disappeared, the family backstory was mostly cut out (including lingering bikini shots of the actress playing Thomas' mother), and the film now centered more on Abu and less on Edouard. And THAT is the version which was released as "The Silent Army".

So apparently you can spot the difference if you remember any bikinis?