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The Mark Of Cain
cast: Gerard Kearns, Matthew McNulty, Shaun Dooley, and Leo Gregory

director: Mark Munden

90 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Revolver DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Originally due to be screened on Channel 4 in early April, Tony Marchant's hard-hitting portrayal of cowardice, racism and sadism in the British armed forces has already generated controversy. According to Private Eye, the Ministry of Defence took such umbrage to Marchant's depiction of British servicemen that it leaked advance copies prompting anti-TV and pro-military journalists to question the wisdom of screening such a drama at the same time as Iran held 15 British service personnel captive. Predictably, Channel 4 caved to the pressure and rescheduled the release of this reasonable drama, thereby getting it far more publicity than it would have generated had it gone out in its original timeslot.

The Mark Of Cain refers to a speech given by a senior British officer, according to which, any British soldier who mistreated an Iraqi would be forever marked for his crimes. The film follows young recruits Mark 'Treacle' Tate (Gerard Kearns) and Shane Gulliver (Matthew McNulty) as they go through their first tour of duty in Iraq. The film begins with the platoon bonding and the different characters been established. However, before long, the platoon is ambushed by insurgents resulting in the death of an officer and a member of the Territorial Army posted with the regiment. Enraged by the murder of their colleagues, the platoon are sent to a nearby town to round up troublemakers and they come across a teenager who had looted a gun from a Baath Party headquarters and a baker who happened to have his life savings in cash in his own home. The platoon take the two prisoners back to the base and, after getting drunk on booze and self-righteousness, the corporal (Shaun Dooley) decides to 'question' the prisoners. Initially Mark refuses but Shane talks him into it.

After the boys return home, Shane's digital photos of the brutal torture of the prisoners are uncovered and the boys are made scapegoats for the entire regiment, including the Corporal who gets promoted in return for testifying against them and a senior officer who thinks of his own career before he does the good of his men. This sets the stage for a tug of war between Mark and Shane's loyalty to the regiment and their principles and desire for self-preservation on the other.

The Mark Of Cain argues that while torture is clearly an example of moral cowardice, the cowardice is not, as is traditionally suggested, a result of a willingness to trade human rights for security. Instead, the act of cowardice is a refusal to stick to one's principles in the face of peer pressure. So when the soldiers return from Iraq they do not see their pictures as anything other than the kind of trophies and anecdotes that soldiers have dined out on for as long as there have been soldiers. It is only when Mark's mother works out that something's wrong and Shane's girlfriend sees the photos that the soldiers begin to suspect quite how far they have strayed beyond the boundaries of accepted behaviour. The problem is that while the film focuses on this moral cowardice, it shows little interest in delving into why soldiers would be willing to sell out their principles and even their freedom for their friends and their regiment.

In order for a conflict of this kind to be dramatically interesting it needs to be plausible. It would be easy to write a piece painting soldiers as barely literate thugs who would doubtless be in prison if they weren't in the armed forces. However, in order for a drama to be more than a hand wringing hatchet job it needs to delve into the reasons for the character's conflicted emotions. In the case of The Mark Of Cain, this would mean establishing how the soldiers are made loyal to the regiment and how that pressure to be a team player is maintained.

Sadly, Marchant shows no interest in psychological depth. Even the early bonding scenes show bullying between the soldiers and between the professional and reserve soldiers. This means that, from the very beginning, life in the regiment is shown to be unpleasant, making the regiment's later demands for loyalty come off as transparently self-serving. Indeed, were it not for films such as Full Metal Jacket (1987), which introduced the brutality of basic military training into the public consciousness, The Mark Of Cain would be completely and utterly unbelievable.

The basic problem is that while the film is structured around a moral quandary, it is pretty clear that the filmmakers do not think that there is any basis for people being in any kind of quandary about torture. The moral quandary appears absurd to the viewer because it is to the writer and director. This suggests that The Mark Of Cain is not a film about moral cowardice and peer pressure; it is in fact a film about the moral ineptitude of the British military and the war in Iraq. Indeed, in one key scene, an officer protests that the British do not 'do' torture. According to their media profile they learned their lessons in Northern Ireland and Yugoslavia and now patrol the streets of Basra in berets rather than armour.

Obviously, this is nonsense, a fiction sold by the British government and contentedly swallowed by the British media thanks to an underlying current of anti-Americanism and the belief that ultimately the British are morally superior to the brutal and child-like Americans with their liturgy of war crimes in Vietnam and Guantanamo Bay. The film's problem is that Marchant does not make this argument directly, instead he makes another argument so weakly and in such a one-sided manner that we are merely left to infer that British soldiers are racist, murderous thugs.

For an example of how to make this point in an intelligent manner look no further than Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. The first half of the film shows soldiers being psychologically broken and the second half shows them callously killing Vietnamese civilians and engaging in unquestioned racism, demonstrating cause and effect. Soldiers are brutal thugs because they are made into brutal thugs. Sadly, where Kubrick chose to make this point in his traditionally clear and analytical manner, Marchant prefers to make these points by insinuation and suggestion.

The result is a film which, though boasting some good performances and some decent ideas is ultimately underwritten and confused. As a piece of drama it is one-sided and naïve and as an indictment of the British military it is cowardly and toothless. A missed opportunity...

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