The Patrol (2013) Film Review

The Patrol follows a small British Army unit on the frontlines in Afghanistan. Battling poor equipment, low morale, and an unseen enemy the men begin to fall apart from the pressures of an ill prepared military operation.

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Tom Petch directs the Patrol and it’s a thoughtful directorial debut. Set in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province in 2006, a British military unit is sent to the frontlines. The British Troops were sent out for what was supposed to be three days but after a special forces operation in the area disrupts the Taliban the soldiers are forced to stay indefinitely.

They’re not hardened killers with high-end tech. They’re underequipped British boys who are far from home. This isn’t a glamorous representation of war, nor is it especially heroic, for the most part these soldiers are scared and they bicker over basic items like bed space and porn magazines.

That’s not to say that what the soldiers do isn’t heroic, it’s more that the film never paints the wider Afghani conflict as having any sort of intrinsic moral imperative. The context, the place where the soldiers are doesn’t inspire an epic; instead it’s a film about a group of blokes doing what they can with what little they have.

Far from home

Often the soldiers are left as impotent watchers. They’re lowly troops who’ve been left unnotified of other military operations in their area. They are out of the loop and this is perhaps reflective of the viewers experience and the societal implications of being at war so far from home. Everything is on a need to know basis and the cadre of soldiers seem so incredibly vulnerable and cut off from contact.

The Patrol is a quiet film and it has little in the way of similarities to the majority of war movies. This is not Black Hawk Down, this isn’t a glorified representation of contemporary warfare; instead it’s an age old nuts and bolts story of under-equipped, uninformed, soldiers fighting a war that they have no control or influence over. The film that it seems most like is Jarhead – just without the satire and social commentary. The Patrol never seems to be didactic and its honest and unflinching account is both generalised to the military profession, and specific to the British soldiers that the narrative follows.

The soldiers seem so small and dwarfed by the Afghani landscape and the miles and miles of open space again reflect their vulnerability. The further they travel the more important it becomes to maintain order especially when the motivation for that discipline seems increasingly absurd. The soldiers do what they’re told, with some fuss and complaining, but the real motivation as to why they’re in Afghanistan is never made apparent. The soldiers are fighting a political war and everything about it is unclear and almost unreal. The Taliban insurgents they’re hunting are never actually seen and it often looks like the British soldiers are firing at absolutely nothing.

Threat of danger

The legacy of these gun battles however is very real and the danger of being shot becomes ever more prevalent as the British soldiers spend more and more time in the Afghani hinterlands. This is a story that hits close to home and it feels at many points that the soldiers could be people that you know. This realism forces you to care about their survival and hope that they make it out of Afghanistan with their lives. These soldiers are alone and their effect on the wider conflict is never clear and apparently minimal.

Much of the narrative in this film takes place between points of action. This forces the characters, and the audience, to wait. Of course this increase the tension, but the reliance on patience seems like a very realistic narrative touch. War isn’t all noise, guts, and bravado; much of it is spent waiting and not knowing.

No blockbuster set pieces

As many higher budget war films rely on set pieces there isn’t always as much time for character exposition. The Patrol is at its best in the quiet and mundane moments, the places where very little happens but the threat of attack is always present. It’s in this tension that the soldiers are forced to live and their inability to be effective is more of a comment on the war itself than their abilities.

The Patrol has a nightmarish, dream like quality to it as the soldiers quietly plod through the dusty Afghani desert. The Taliban are like ghouls or specters and the soldiers never meet them in any sort of definitive combat. This is an exciting and well considered debut from British writer-director Tom Petch.

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