Rules of Disengagement: Armadillo

Rules of Disengagement: Armadillo

Static Mass Rating: 1/5
Soda Pictures 

Release date: April 8th 2011
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 105 minutes

Director: Janus Metz Pedersen

Hollywood has done war. Now war is going Hollywood.

There is a striking moment in Armadillo, the award-winning war documentary which provoked a Danish government inquiry last year, when the action cuts from footage of the soldiers playing a video game to actual military engagement. Someone throws a grenade in the multiplayer melee of a well-known first-person shooter (which, symmetrical to my point, has been criticised for its realism), and the explosion takes place on a battlefield in reality- real reality: that’s the one where when people have their heads blown off their families don’t get to see them anymore. It is particularly salient to a film which doesn’t so much blur as blind itself to the distinction between dramatisation and documentation.


Between February and October 2009, director Janus Metz joined a young Danish unit stationed at the Armadillo base in Helmand Province. Before their departure we meet the soldiers’ frightened families and witness their tearful farewells. Interposing these emotional scenes is a rather graphic farewell to femininity. The boys are seen to enjoy dallying with a stripper who, to the soundtrack of death metal, frantically masturbates for their amusement. As General Sherman once said, war is a terrible thing.

The “characters” are introduced in freeze frames by flashy captions reminiscent of a comic book. 20 year old Mads, whose name, babyish looks and diminutive frame would be more at home in a boy band than a warzone, is adopted as the film’s “protagonist”, presumably because he is the most sympathetic of the troupe. This is his first tour of duty, as it is for many of his peers. Fear and excitement mix on their arrival; but before long it becomes apparent to them that residence at a sandy compound in the middle of a forsaken desert is really rather boring. They pass the lingering hours shooting each other on the PS3, watching pornography and cheering along to war films. Most are restless and impatient to see “action” which, with the exception of a few gunshots from indeterminate targets, some artillery fire to answer it and the explosion of an IED, severely wounding one senior officer, has not been forthcoming.

In the course of following Mads’, we the audience are made privy to a few of his private calls. His mum and dad live in terror of the phone ringing, lest it bring bad news. ArmadilloFollowing one particularly distressing conversation, during which his mother implores him to be vigilant and avoid unnecessary risks, the next scene shows a senior officer giving him the opportunity to opt out of a dangerous night patrol. After an agonising pause, he says something like “I’ll go if you need me to”, which the commander interprets positively. At this instance I had the horrifying thought that this sequence had been structured with terrible irony to anticipate some harm befalling the poor boy. Fortunately he escapes the mission physically unscathed, though a few of his colleagues are not so fortunate.

During this episode, which is the shocking centrepiece of the movie, five Taliban combatants who have been injured by a grenade are “liquidated in the most humane way possible”, as a soldier jokes in the debriefing. He boasts he had used “30 or 40 rounds” to eliminate one of them. Everyone laughs in approval.

The bloodthirsty relish with which they describe the “engagement” is perhaps more sickening than the way they blithely go about manhandling the Afghani corpses to divest them of their weapons, the indignity of which is hardly assuaged by a few blurry pixels disguising their nonetheless visibly mutilated features. Repeating the story to friends whose injuries prevented them from attending the after-party that a debriefing seems to constitute, a soldier involved in this barbaric episode describes the head injuries to one of the Taliban fighters with a cheerful enthusiasm that can only be regarded as literally psychopathic.


At the London Film Festival a reticent Metz was heard to instruct his audience not to enjoy the film; but with atmospheric and suspenseful music from an original score, slick post-production and dramatic editing, he has done his painstaking utmost to make an entertaining movie.

The question which the film’s merit almost entirely depends on is whether it deliberately defies us not to be entertained by the awfulness of war, in much the same way as Borat dared us to laugh at racial stereotypes? Or does it just aim to satisfy the sadistic voyeurs who are happy to watch reality as though it were a Hollywood blockbuster?

But even if the former were true, and we in the enlightened corner of the audience could congratulate ourselves for spotting the ruse and denounce the sleepwalking savages who might straightforwardly enjoy the film- would we not then happily sit back to “appreciate” it easy in the knowledge that our wealth of intelligence and concern has allowed us to set up a sort of moral direct-debit to pay off our consciences on the sly? And is that not in some ways worse than just gullibly spectating?

Possibly Armadillo does want to awaken us to our desensitisation by depicting reality in the way that we want to see it when we merrily watch fictive violence in films, and perhaps it will serve to enrage any right-thinking person, and maybe that’s all well and good. But it does this by being a consummately execrable reel of film. ArmadilloIn a parting shot to those stupid reckless people who may allow morality to get in the way of hard-knuckled pragmatism, the concluding image shows a commander, whose barefaced self-preserving mendacity is starkly demonstrated earlier in the movie, holding his melancholy head in his hands because, poor him, he and his buddies got caught savouring the task of putting bloody perforations in foreigners and disfiguring their corpses. How the world misunderstands! The camera laments with him. Close up. In the shower. In – slow – motion.

Conceivably the movie wants to be hateful commensurate to the hatefulness of war by sympathising in this way with unmitigated barbarity, I don’t know. But if this is the case, it leaves one in a peculiar but not altogether disagreeable position. However you watch it, whether you “appreciate” it or not, in order to do Armadillo the justice it almost certainly does not deserve you must reward it with your unqualified contempt. And that, I think you’ll find, comes quite easily.

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