Tuesday 20 January 2015

The Wars of Other Men (2013)

Director: Mike Zawacki
Stars: Scott Norman, Jonny Victor, Tommy Beardmore, Mitchell Koory, Stevie Robinson, Jonathan West and Pauline Ann Johnson
This film was an official selection at the 10th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
I was buzzed when I saw that The Wars of Other Men was selected to screen at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival because it had garnered some publicity within steampunk circles. It's technically set a little late to be called steampunk, this alternate 1920s global conflict being much more dieselpunk, but it carries a lot of similarities that echo across the subgenres. It's a substantial piece and it knows it, kicking off with stylish opening credits that unfold over a set of maps with overlaid animated plans and finishing up with the agreeable orchestral score playing over the end credits like the echoes of a distant battle. Its 26 minutes are unrushed but to the point, every little detail there to build something within the carefully constructed script. That does mean that the conclusion isn't particularly surprising but the way we get to it is neatly done. There are strong design choices and capable effects throughout but, sadly, the villain of the piece is about as annoyingly stereotypical as could have been managed.

To be fair, the hero of the piece is rather stereotypical too, but he does have the benefit of screen time to build his character and between Mike Zawacki, who wrote the story and adapted it into a screenplay with Nancy Nall Derringer, and Scott Norman, the actor tasked with playing this unnamed lieutenant, he's built very well indeed. We quickly discover through a well written conversation between one of his men and a new recruit, that he's not only a capable soldier and a man of his word but also someone with the ability to think on his feet and find ways to imaginatively work within the rules and thus achieve goals which he has officially been barred from doing. That, and Norman's admirable combination of care and distance, is the real framework for the story, over which is laid the particular mission he's been given that we're here to watch unfold. The enemy has created a deadly chemical weapon called 'the fog' and the mission is to the factory that makes it, but it's not quite to do what we might expect.
Norman is very good indeed here, making sure that the lieutenant is far from a stereotype. However, the soldiers in his squad don't get the screen time he does, so the actors don't have as much opportunity to build and the characters aren't as memorable. They work best as a unit, which is perhaps as appropriate as it gets, providing us with a very human face to the allies that is countered by that of the brass back at HQ. The enemy, however, is faceless throughout, until we meet Dr Adam Weishaupt, the man behind the gas (if that doesn't sound like a bad joke). I don't want to fault Steve Gualtieri because he does precisely what he was clearly asked to do, but what he was asked to do is stand really still during a scene of great tension while looking like a Nazi version of Dr Evil and trying not to laugh because he obviously knows it. This should have been the pivotal scene in the film but it's really the worst because it's so annoying. It's safe to say that the rest of the picture makes up for it, but it would be a better work if this were fixed.

If Dr Weishaupt is the worst thing about the picture, the best is surely how it looks. Even above Norman's contribution to the lead role, the look of the film stands out for praise. To reflect that we're in a warzone, the colour palette is faded a little, as if coated with the dust from bombed out buildings. The devastation is highly believable, as are the other effects of war, such as a few very effective wounds. The tanks and armoured airships are gorgeous creations and due care is given to their placement and use. To highlight how this is an alternate history, if war zeppelins wasn't enough of a giveaway, the uniforms and badges used aren't recognisable. Apparently the helmets are from communist East Germany, rarely used in film, to make them feel unfamiliar. I feel odd complaining about accents in an alternate history, but they aren't consistent with the clear influence of England vs Germany, so it looks better than it sounds. This is strong enough, however, that I'm eager to see Zawacki's earlier work, such as 2010's The Message.

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