Film Review: Lebanon

TAYLOR DOWNING reviews a classic war film.

At dawn on 6 June 1982, on what was ironically the 38th anniversary of D-Day, Israeli troops launched an invasion of Lebanon. Israeli F-15 and F-16 jets bombed Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) positions in South Lebanon, and then about 800 tanks and 60,000 infantry went forward in an operation known as Peace for Galilee. There had been tension in the region for many years, and a UN Peacekeeping Force had been inserted along the border, known as UNIFIL. The Irish troops that formed a large contingent of UNIFIL could do nothing but note the registration numbers of the tanks and military vehicles that passed them on their way into Lebanon to destroy the fighters and camps of the PLO.

In one of the Israeli tanks on that day was a 20-year-old gunner called Samuel Maoz. So influenced was he by the experience of fighting in the weeks that followed that he later said every day he was haunted by memories of the war. But, back home, no one was allowed to show signs of trauma. As he later told a journalist: ‘The older generation told us, “Say thank you that you are alive; we were in the Nazi concentration camps.”’ Years later, Maoz said he still felt like a ‘bad boy’ if he complained of or expressed the horror of what he had seen and done.

Some years after the war, Maoz began to study film in Tel Aviv. He started to write a script about his experiences in the Lebanese war but ‘the first memory that came was the smell of burning flesh’. He did not finish his script, fearing it would only add to his trauma.

Then, in 2006, Israel attacked Lebanon again. This time, as Maoz watched television news stories that seemed a repeat of what had happened more than 20 years before, he went back to and finished his script, feeling as though he was able to put some distance between himself and his past.

Having raised a small budget, partly from German and French television, Maoz went on to direct his own script. The result is Lebanon, one of the most remarkable war films ever made. The film is entirely shot from inside an Israeli tank, apart from the opening and closing images of a field of sunflowers. For the whole of the rest of the film, we see and hear only what the four-man tank-crew sees and hears. The viewer only knows what they know, what they hear on the radio or are told by their unit’s commanding officer. We only see what is happening outside the tank through the tank gun or tank commander’s sights.

As the film unfolds, the tank is filled with unnamed liquids that spill into foul pools on the floor and the men become covered with sweat and grime as they bicker and argue. Shot in big close-ups, this creates an overwhelming intensity and a powerful sense of claustrophobia as the tank rumbles into war.

The tank portrayed in the film was an Israeli Sho’t (Hebrew for ‘whip’) battle tank. This was an Israeli-modified British L7 Centurion tank, armed with a 105mm main gun and a machine-gun. It was powered by a Rolls-Royce engine, and had been the principal tank used by the Israel Defense Forces in the Six Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur or October War of 1973. By 1982, only a few were left in service, and in Lebanon it certainly seems they were old, noisy, and cranky: closer to a World War II Sherman tank than to a modern, electronically controlled war machine. This all adds to the terrifyingly claustrophobic atmosphere of the film.

Three of the crew are in the turret: Assi, the tank commander (Itay Tiran); Hertzel, the gun loader (Oshri Cohen); and Shmulik, the gunner (Yoav Donat), who is loosely based on Maov himself. The driver, Yigal (Michael Moshonov), is in the hull. To prepare his actors, Maov locked each one of them in a small dark metal container left out in the sun. After a couple of hours, he banged the container with an iron bar, a sound very similar to a tank under fire. He left them in the container for five or six hours until each actor was in a state of sweaty, nervous exhaustion. This experience clearly helped them to portray with brilliant authenticity the nervousness of a tank crew during battle.

‘Welcome to South Lebanon’

The film begins in the early hours of 6 June 1982. The four-man crew in the tank are supported by a platoon of infantry. The Israelis had learned the need for infantry support of armoured vehicles in the 1973 war, when large numbers of their tanks had been knocked out. The unit’s commander, a major whom we only know by the name Gamil (Zohar Strauss), descends into the tank from the hatch to give the crew its orders. They are to cross the border at dawn, move across a plantation, then through a civilian area to rendezvous with other forces beyond this. As they move out, the commander calls through on the radio in English, ‘Welcome to South Lebanon’.

In their first action, the gunner Shmulik panics and cannot fire his weapon. He says he got confused. ‘I’ve only ever shot at barrels before now,’ he tells the rest. But the consequence of his inaction is that an Israeli infantryman is killed. His blood-covered corpse is lowered into the tank to await evacuation. He is the first visitor to get a ride in the tank.

Following this comes an incident that was based on an actual event that had happened to Maoz. The tank is in a narrow road in the midst of a banana plantation. A small van appears, being driven by an elderly man who is shouting wildly in Arabic. It is impossible to know if he is a fighter in a van packed with explosives on a suicide mission, or a local farmer who has mistakenly driven into the thick of an invasion.

The commander orders the gunner to fire. This time Shmulik does so, and hits the van head on. By the time the smoke has subsided, the road is full of boxes of chickens. The driver is clearly an innocent victim of the war. He is lying at the side of the road screaming, his arms and legs having been blown off. All this is observed as the crew would have seen it through the tank’s gunsights. Maoz, in describing the real incident later, said this poor Palestinian was the first man he had ever killed, and the memory of the event lived with him for years.

Gamil, the major, once again visits the tank, climbing down through the hatch. He says that under international law they are not allowed to use phosphorus shells. But he will call the shells ‘Smoking Fire’. He instructs them to use Smoking Fire if ordered to do so.

In another tense and terrible scene, the unit enters a village. They are told that Israeli jets have bombed the place and that it should be a cakewalk. Through the gunsights we see the remains of shops and homes, littered with corpses. But then the Israelis suddenly come under fire. A group of guerrillas in a first-floor apartment, using a family as human shields, are firing down from a balcony.

The order comes to use Smoking Fire against the apartment. But the gunner can see a young girl on the balcony and hesitates. The fire fight becomes intense. A grenade is thrown into the balcony. In the smoke and chaos that follow, the mother (Reymonde Amsallem) comes down into the street screaming. She is looking for her five-year-old daughter. An Arabic-speaking Israeli soldier tells her it is not safe, and she must get down. She is going wild looking for her daughter.

Then her abaya (or gown) catches fire. The soldier pulls it off her and the distraught woman finds herself in the middle of a combat zone: naked, literally and metaphorically. After the situation has calmed down, and she is wrapped in a torn blanket, the woman wanders towards the tank and looks down the gunsights accusingly. It is a powerful sequence, showing how easily civilians get embroiled in war.

The tank is then attacked by a soldier who fires a small rocket. The screen goes black. After a while, the light comes back on. They have survived the attack. The soldier, a Syrian, is captured, and the prisoner is brought handcuffed into the tank. Their second visitor.

For reasons that are not clear, the unit has now got itself cut off. They are told that two Phalangists (Christian Lebanese Arabs) are coming to help evacuate them. One of the Phalangists climbs into the tank. He is delighted to find they have a Syrian prisoner. Having ascertained that none of the tank-crew speaks Arabic, the Phalangist kneels down next to the prisoner and tells him how he is going to torture him appallingly when they get back, beginning by scooping out one of his eyes with a spoon. As he leaves the tank, the Phalangist cynically tells the crew in English to treat the Syrian well, as he is a prisoner of war protected by the rules of the Geneva Convention.

The depiction of the Phalangists is an interesting feature of the film. It was the Phalangists who later in the Lebanon War carried out the massacre of thousands of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in south Beirut, an incident that was described by the UN as an act of genocide.

As the film progresses, the tank-crew members argue among themselves, the tank commander has what is effectively a breakdown, the tank’s engine fails, and the situation gets even more spooky as night falls. The interior of the vehicle becomes hideously filthy, and the men perspire and urinate. It is a form of hell. There are no winners and losers in Lebanon. Everyone is a loser.

Forgotten award-winner

The film has been compared to several others in the same genre. David Ayer’s 2014 film Fury projects a realistic image of the bonding of a tank-crew and the consequences of a failure to act by one man on those around him. All the tank interior shots were filmed at Pinewood. But Fury ends with a John Wayne-type shootout, and a messy sense of victory. Das Boot (1981), directed by Wolfgang Petersen, also deals in a realistic way with the pressures on a crew of men, this time inside a German U-boat. In some ways, Lebanon is also like Saving Private Ryan (1998). Indeed, the depiction of violence in Lebanon compares with the opening 20 minutes of Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed World War II masterpiece.

Lebanon is a powerful vision of men at war, made real and intense by the fact that we never once move outside the tank, and only see the outside world from the interior. After its release, it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2009. But, though widely praised at the time, it is now largely forgotten. It deserves to be reshown and once more elevated to the status of one of the best war films ever made. •

The 1982 Lebanon War

By the early 1980s, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), led by the charismatic and media-savvy Yasser Arafat, had built almost a state within a state inside the failed nation of Lebanon. This was where the aspirations of Palestinian nationalism were focused. There had been Palestinians in Lebanon since 1948, when tens of thousands from Haifa and the north of British-administered Palestine had left or were expelled from their homes on the foundation of the state of Israel, an event memorialised in Palestinian memory as the Nakba, or ‘catastrophe’.

Israeli troops stationed in Lebanon during Operation Peace for Galilee, 1982. Israel considered the war necessary to prevent attacks from PLO militants.

Years of civil war in Lebanon had brought a collapse in that country’s centralised institutions, and into this vacuum in the late 1970s came the PLO. They began to organise their own schools, hospitals, and social welfare. And in the refugee camps in South Lebanon, fighters openly trained using live ammunition, to the amazement of visiting journalists.

By the late 1970s, these PLO fighters were regularly firing shells and rockets from military bases in southern Lebanon on to towns and villages in Galilee, in northern Israel. The Israelis responded with several military incursions into southern Lebanon, some of which lasted for days at a time. This resulted in a UN peacekeeping force (UNIFIL) being installed along the South Lebanon border.

Throughout his career, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin had never hesitated from using violence to achieve his ends. By the spring of 1982, he had decided that he had to take decisive action against both the PLO militants firing on Israel and the growing Palestinian state in Lebanon.

On 6 June 1982, Begin launched a full-scale invasion of southern Lebanon by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Defense Minister Ariel Sharon enthusiastically supported his prime minister’s policy. The Israeli operation was known as Peace for Galilee. The public objective was that, by defeating the PLO, Israel would bring 40 years of peace to the region.

It was intended that the war should be over in a couple of weeks. But Begin and Sharon decided to order their troops to surround Beirut. After weeks of bombing and the deaths of an estimated 20,000 civilians, the Americans negotiated a ceasefire. In September, the PLO withdrew from Lebanon to Tunisia. Israeli forces went on to occupy Beirut, the first Arab capital they had ever captured.

But an international peacekeeping force of Americans, French, Italians, and British could not prevent the massacre of somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 Palestinian civilians in the sprawling camps of Sabra and Chatila in south Beirut. The massacre was carried out over a 24-hour period by the Christian Lebanese Phalangists, while Israeli soldiers who surrounded the area did nothing to stop the rapes and killings.

Israeli forces eventually withdrew, but in the political vacuum following the war and the PLO withdrawal, radical Islamic groups began to flourish. An attack on the US Marines the following year by the newly formed Hezbollah left 241 American soldiers dead.

Begin’s war certainly did not lead to 40 years of peace. The region has been torn apart by violence ever since.

Produced by Uri Sabag and Einat Bikel. Written and directed by Samuel Maoz. Starring Oshri Cohen and Itay Tiran. A Franco-German-Israeli production. Available on DVD.

Images: Wikimedia Commons