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War Dream

by Kris Saknussemm

A war movie — set during the Boer War. The key scene involves a battlefield of men, Boers and Brits, all viciously mangled. Many bodies have literally been blown apart. Arms and legs lie in pools of meat, blood and filth. Heads without bodies continue to talk, plead, sigh and scream in pain.

As it turns out, this is not a battlefield in South Africa anymore. These men are all in a kind of limbo — a shadow world between life and death where their conduct now will determine if they pass back to earth and die forever or move onto some sort of Heaven.

The ruined men are told by an enormous unseen Voice what they must do. Their task is to piece themselves together, whether they be Boers or British, Anglo or African. They must try to form as complete a squadron or platoon as possible.

It is here that the special effects in the movie which have taken ghastliness and forensic detail to an entirely new level of impact, begin to work an unexpected kind of magic. Every piece of flesh and splintered bone is alive and cognizant, and suddenly we see a shredded lump of bloody arm moving with a humanity and individuality a single limb has never expressed before.

The effect is as mesmerizing as it is disturbing. And yet some of the heads reject the task. They don’t see the point or are too far gone to believe the task has any hope of fulfillment. They defy the unseen Voice.

Now the special effects in the film transcend themselves completely. Suddenly the total fabric of the film seems to explode — the entire setting bursts apart in a terrifying blast of soil, rock and body parts, appearing to rain down on you — and out of the underlying world apparently just below and behind the film, there erupts the source of the unseen Voice — a massive and absolutely fear-inspiring Giant. The figure is so enormous that it’s as if everything we’ve seen so far has been but freckle on the huge face. The hair is matted with sweat and despair. The Giant is like one of the wounded soldiers, only vast, and his downtroddenness of expression makes his rage all the more horrifying.

In response to some of the soldiers’ heads saying they won’t comply, the Giant’s voice booms out, “THIS IS NOT A REQUEST!”

The sound is deafening, and as he speaks he rips into leg and skull as if he’s crunching down bird bones. The teeth gnash down, tearing sinew and sucking marrow. The screams of the soldiers are dreadful — and because they are in this limbo, they remain completely conscious. Every body part is sentient and alert. If all that remains of a man is his leg, then the leg takes on the weight and substance of his whole being. Each body part is as complete an individual as remains.

After watching this scene, I find myself on the set of the film where more work is being done to complete it. The director, to my surprise, is an older man with snow-white hair — lean, fit, and very unassuming. He’s not at all the Hollywood director type you imagine. Strangely enough he even admits to not having a very good imagination, which surprises me given the nature of the film. He’s in fact approaching everything in a very methodical and business-like way.

He tells me with a little bit of pride that he’s “packaged” up over forty films in his career. I tell him somewhat sheepishly that I’ve written a screenplay for a movie — but I know there’s so much more to actually making a movie than just writing the script. Watching him work, I see that I don’t really know the half of what I’m saying.

He tells me the film is based on a story by a man called Chester Allen, a British writer who did time as a civil servant somewhere in Africa. He wrote 50 or more “Biggles” type of second-rate adventure books and a host of Boy’s Own stories, and then late in his life, this rather unexpected tale, which in one sense is a bitter antiwar fable, but in another sense is something deeper still.

As it turns out, the wounded soldiers that the Giant is trying to galvanize into some kind of whole again are, in a psychic way, parts of another Giant, who in another world or dimension is himself a dying soldier lying on a bed, unconscious. The Giant we saw so enraged at the damaged men is on a mission to save his friend in their other world. If he fails, he will lose both his friend and his own life. The soldiers’ challenge now is not to fight an opponent, but to form as many complete men as possible.

I’m trying to find out from some of the crew how the film ends when the security guys converge to usher me off the set. It seems that one of the staged explosions has gone wrong and three of the stunt people are badly injured. Another is dead.

Copyright © 2006 by Kris Saknussemm

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