Director – Milan Chams – 2022 – Nepal – Cert. 15 – 115m
A small Gurkha unit is dropped into the Malayan jungle by helicopter on a search and rescue mission to save a number of the comrades who have been captured – previews in UK cinemas on Saturday, November 4th, out in UK cinemas on Friday, November 10th
There’s a very sweet frame story bookending Gurkha Warrior in which an old man takes his young and curious grandson to a hilltop in Nepal with mountains in the background for his annual ritual of laying a commemorative wreath at its foot and saluting in memory of fallen war comrades. When he explains this to his grandson as they walk away along the ridge, the latter picks a flower off a nearby bush and runs back to leave the flower beside the old man’s wreath. His grandfather is deeply moved by this.
That very much sums up this film, the director and star of which both served as Gurkhas. The narrative takes place against the backdrop of the Malaya Emergency (1948-1960), but since that’s never explained and given that audiences are likely to be unfamiliar with the historical background, the film floats in an unfortunate war film netherworld lacking any sort of context.
It plunges straight into a theatre of war as (what I take to be computer-generated) British Army helicopters drop a small Gurkha unit of towards a dozen men (played by, among others, Ritesh Chams, Vijay Lama, Rebika Gurung and Kabita Ale) into tropical jungle terrain. Their objective: to find and release a bunch of their Gurkha comrades who have been taken prisoner by the enemy.
You might think the jungle presents many dangers to man in terms of its indigenous wildlife, and the first few shots of the men going through jungle terrain reinforce this, with foreground leaves sporting red ants or snakes. One scene has one of the marching Gurkhas declare that he’s not afraid to die fighting the enemy, but he is scared of the snakes and other wild animals, this as he pauses near a snake on a fallen tree trunk perilously close to where the men pass. His unit leader tells him not to be so stupid.
The tenor here is, the danger from the enemy is real, but that from the wildlife not so much. I find this hard to believe, but it gets the production out of dealing with, for instance, scenes of attacking snakes.
At one point tiger tracks enter the plot, but only in terms of, animals tend to move any from humans, so if the tiger is going on such-and-such a direction, it is probably moving way from the enemy – who must therefore be somewhere behind us. We never see the tiger, and there’s no suggestion that it presents any real danger – whereas in the narrative, the enemy most definitely do see it.
Other elements in similar vein include noticing the urine clouding a stream as an indication that an enemy foot patrol is nearby.
There’s a terrific moment where one Gurkha steps on an IED (it stands for Improvised Explosive Device, although strangely if that information is here somewhere, I missed it) with a click, and immediately knows that if he lifts his foot, that will be the end of him. In true hero style, his concern is not that he should be saved (he knows he’s had it), but rather that his comrades should get away before it blows up and kills them too, taking care in what has now been revealed to be a heavily booby-trapped area.
As soon as either the Gurkhas find and attack the enemy, or alternately are suddenly surprised by them, the film runs into problems wherein numerous shots of the resultant battle bear so little relation to any coherent whole that no editor on earth could save these sequences: they contain all the required energy, adrenaline and excitement but no sense of overall strategy by either side and prove totally confusing. (Obviously there’s an argument could be brought out that engagements between sides in a war are really like that, but to me, that’s not good enough: these sequences feel ill-prepared and sloppy.)
The film seems to be at its strongest when dealing with one particular Gurkha (Ritesh Chams), the rest of his unit gone, trying to complete his unit’s mission as a lone agent. We are shown the enemy camp, where a heavily caricatured, despotic commander tortures captured soldiers or shoots innocent locals at will. For the finale, our lone hero, who has already fallen down a steep hill through vegetation impaling one hand on a piece of bamboo or similar, embarks on a series of enemy troop slayings involving garotting, throat-cutting and more, in the hope of taking the enemy camp and freeing the beleaguered locals. The one man’s exploits are rendered with clarity up to the point where a mass gunfight breaks out, wherein the narrative again lapses into confusion.
All the Gurkhas are asked early on whether they are married – and all of them are, as it turns out. Which provides for some nice scenes in the main hero’s village, where his wife waits for him to fulfil his promise to return from the war after three years. There are fascinating elements of local colour and culture, especially when she and her sisters, concerned that their mother is gravely ill, take her to the local medicine man for the appropriate healing rituals.
When she sees a light falling on a distant slope, it presages our hero’s falling down that other slope in the jungle, implying some deep psychosexual connection. After that, you’re waiting for the scene where he either returns to her fulfilling her promise, or she receives the bad news that he hasn’t made it through the way – one or other of these scenes (or some sort of suitable equivalent) is needed, but the film ends without going there, which is deeply dissatisfying.
In short, while the film is to be praised for the mere fact it got made in Nepal and is to receive UK distribution – no mean feat – and for attempting to tell the Gurkhas’ story, its many shortcomings means it’s likely to do a disservice to the brave men whose achievement it so clearly and desperately wishes to promote. Which is a great shame as it feels like a golden opportunity which has been needlessly squandered.
Gurkha Warrior previews in UK cinemas on Saturday, November 4th, and is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, November 10th.