Four Lions: War Goes Bang

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Chris Morris was one of my cultural heroes. I pored over recordings of On the Hour and his shows for Radio 1; The Day Today and Brass Eye were watertight satires of the language of news media. Blue Jam (plus its televisual progeny Jam) proved that comedy could be beyond edgy – it could be terrifying if you listened to it in the dark with headphones on, a truly groundbreaking, nightmarish hybrid of horror, ambient music and sketch comedy that might have been known as his crowning achievement if it hadn’t been deliberately hidden away in a late-night slot so that it could squat menacingly on the border between dreams and waking. Morris can, without exaggeration, lay claim to having helped change the way the makers of news media regard themselves and speak to us. His mockery of the self-important gigantism of newsy rhetoric was so precise, so powerful that it became difficult to deal in such bombast without irony, and his refusal to give interviews or answer to his critics even during the most frenzied moments of his censorship wrangles only added to the mystique and bolstered the credibility of a man who had opted out of second-tier commentary on his work: if there was almost no studies of Morris’ work, it wasn’t because it wasn’t important – it was such a lucid, categorical body of satirical essayis, that it needed nobody to step in to explain it. Did I mention that it was all really funny? Because that usually helps. I didn’t think so much of Nathan Barley, his collaboration with Charlie Brooker, not because it didn’t have some great jokes, but because it made fun of a certain kind of vacuous media twat that was so self-evidently objectionable as to require no further comment. It was fun to mock Nathan and his idiot ilk, but the show had none of the necessity of his earlier shows that slipped inside the news format and bent it out of shape from within.

Here endeth the hagiography. I just wanted to say that I really wanted to like Four Lions. I wanted it to be the next stage in the glittering career of an artist I had long admired. And I did enjoy it. And it does mark a new Morrisian age. But I have a few reservations.

Four Lions is a tale of a group of British jihadis (or, more properly, mujahideen) who plot a suicide mission to blow up civilians to send a message to a decadent society. The story follows their increasingly strained relationships as they plan their mission, argue over targets and stumble over the practicalities of acquiring the materials for their explosive acts. Their all-round incompetence at carrying out these preparations provides the comic bedrock that distracts temporarily from the horror what they have in mind; it seems at times that they themselves have little cognisance of what is coming, like bereaved relatives who paper over their grief with catering arrangements for a funeral.

At first glance, Four Lions looks like another in a long line of sentimental British comedies in which marginalised groups of (usually) working-class (mostly) men attempt to assuage their disenfranchisement by forming a group that will perform a creative act that asserts their independence, agency and self-worth – see Brassed Off, The Full Monty, Lucky Break or, for slightly different takes on the same concept, Billy Elliot and Calendar Girls. They all have to do something physically demanding or potentially humiliating to reclaim their identities and jolt themselves out of difficult circumstances. On one level, Four Lions gathers poignancy by slotting into this template, with suicide bombing just another performance for which the protagonists need to rehearse so that they can, as they articulate it, get to a better place. But this may also be its greatest subversion, getting unsuspecting cinemagoers to root for people who want to kill innocent bystanders, simply by  mapping their story onto a conventional narrative trajectory. Our muscle memory tells us to support non-conformists who want to live out their dreams. And while your brain is getting into the groove of learned behaviours, you’re chuckling along with budding terrorists and hoping they’ll manage to get those bags of fertiliser to the hideout without accidentally blowing themselves up. It strategically lulls you into knee-jerk support for terrorists.

These are loveable incompetents, endearing at first glance because they seem so naively focused on something for which they are so massively ill-equipped, oblivious to the bigger pictures of geopolitical or theological conflict. It is the focus on the mundanities of getting ready for their mission that keeps their minds off thorough reflection on the virtues of their cause or the ambiguities of the message they want to relay to the world through the sacrifice of their bodies. There are jarring hints that their attack is really aimed at “Jews and slags and that”, but no real sense that these men are acting on religious ideological imperatives. Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) seems like such an aimless sweetheart, despite what he’s mixed up in, and it’s tempting to assume that he has no cognisance of the inner lives of the people he is preparing to kill. Omar (Riz Ahmed) refuses to accept his brother’s invitations to his Islamic reading group, frustrated at his adherence to scriptural precision and uptight observance, but probably also fearful of being talked out of the deadly task on which his pride and purpose rest. Omar gees up his dimwit friend Waj (Kayvan Novak) for the suicide plot with the joyous analogy that living in Britain is like being stuck in the queue at Alton Towers. “Do you want to be in the queue, or do you want to be on the rides?” The promise of getting onto the “Rubber Dinghy Rapids” is enough to sustain Waj’s enthusiasm for blowing himself up, the metaphor having replaced the reality – it stops being, for him at least, a life-or-death struggle or a holy war, and becomes a shortcut to a fleeting bit of well-deserved self-gratification. In that running gag is a whole thesis about how religious rhetoric can make the unthinkable matter-of-fact. But hey, it also falls back on comedy staples like exploding animals and bumbling police officers, so there’s something for everyone.

Morris has said that he wanted to do for Islamist suicide bombers what Dad’s Army did for the Home Guard. Presumably (and hopefully) the aim is not to make us warm to the idea of being blown up just so we don’t offend these people, but to point out, by contrast the extent to which they have been demonised in popular culture, and that demonisation can only lead to glamourisation. I found myself wondering if this was a transferable model for comedy. Could we, for instance, have a knockabout comedy where a bunch of earnest-but-dim white supremacists plan a series of arson attacks on synagogues. I have a feeling it wouldn’t go down so well at the multiplexes, but I’m not sure why not. Is it because there are already a terrifying number of people voting for white supremacists to represent them in Parliament? Is it the missing element of suicide (committing suicide for an ill-judged and futile cause has some poignancy to it – it confirms your sincerity, if not your foresight, and requires the kind of dedication to irrational things that goes hand in hand with the comedy of fecklessness), or something else? I suppose the question is really about who this film is for. Is it for those who want to mock, or those who want to understand the phenomenon of young British men exploding themselves to kill other citizens of their country. And is it possible to do both?

Having spent the first half of his career deconstructing the form and language of media, it seems that Morris is now more concerned with the content than the vessel in which it is delivered. It used to be that it was impossible to get an interview with the man himself – Lucian Randall’s recent biography of Morris (the first) got a whole chapter out of the author’s failed attempt to secure an interview, and his close friends and colleagues needed permission before they would talk about working with him. With the release of Four Lions, he has been infinitely more open to discussion of his work, introducing it at screenings and Q&As, and giving the occasional chat, as with his interview with Xan Brooks in The Guardian. Morris had this to say about his prior interest in media language:

You see young people, or kids, and they’re fascinated by the way people talk. And that’s great. But eventually you get to the point where you think, ‘You know what? I don’t care how you talk, I’m just listening to what you’re saying.’ […] There’s a place for looking at the language. How can you wage a war on terror? How can you declare war on an abstract noun? But the danger is that then you’re ignoring the most interesting thing about it. This is such a life-or-death issue that just looking at the language would be a cop-out. You want to find out what’s behind the rhetoric. You need to look at the engine.

But even if it’s not the main focus of the film, language plays a key role in Four Lions. It’s true that the film is not formally experimental or imitative – it adopts the kind of furtive handheld camera style that seems to be the default setting for this kind of quasi-neo-realist thing these days (The Office, The Thick of It), sidling up to the actors or standing amidst the group like a silent, mildly embarrassed member of the cell. If this is deliberately conventional, the wordplay leaps out of the speakers as classic Morrisian craftsmanship. Without wishing to downplay the doubtless significant contributions of Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (co-writers of Peep Show and The Thick of It, they’re clearly on the kind of roll that will one day put them alongside Galton and Simpson or Clement and La Frenais), the dialogue here is often a mix of tortured metaphors and rhetoric inflated to bursting point, a perfect continuation of Morris’s regular argument that slang, jargon and bullshit serve to disguise uncertainty, contradiction and insoluble paradox in a simplistic vestments of authority, steadfastness and truth.

By the time it gets around to a conclusion that becomes increasingly inevitable, the tone shifts considerably. The story finishes with an unsettling image that should stifle any laughter, but this brave note of disquiet is undercut by the closing titles’ montage of the aftermath, returning to Morris’ safer ground of news parodies. It undercuts the power of what immediately precedes it, the one scene where the comedy, well worked though it is, somewhat throws away the hard-won energy that had been generated up to that point. I don’t want to give too much away about the ending, but if you want to discuss it, post a message on the forum below.

Four Lions is a valuable intervention in debates about terrorism, pointing to the gulf between the ambitious proclamations of suicide bombers, and the squalid reality of their situation, and should be rewarded for jamming the machinery that allowed the image of the terrorist as maniacal evil wizard to stay in circulation for too long. It also critiques the smokescreen of nonsense that allows the rhetoric of Holy War to flourish independently of scriptural bases. But it does rather allow (note that I didn’t say it “encourage”) the interpretation that fundamentalism is the self-defeating problem of isolated, moronic enclaves of a few nutters.  It’s not the idiots or reckless idealists we need to be wary about so much as the leaders who face off pridefully across the world stage with little care for how their proclamations will be translated into action by those who long for leadership and certainty.

The four lions seem to have indoctrinated themselves; they are not the duped offshoots in a political resistance movement, but the offshoot of twisted logic that puts them in a position where they feel like they have no choice but to blow themselves up: when words can’t achieve what they desire, or adequately describe their rage, they are reduced to a silly, Tex-Avery death in the hope that somebody else will take over the job of language and report their actions in more glorious terms.

  • Before the film came out, there was some unease over whether Muslims would be offended by the film, as if Britain just had one giant Muslim sleeping in the next room and we should try not to make too much noise and wake him up. We don’t have to check that everybody’s cool with any cultural product before it gets a release, but it’s always nice to check that your satire is accurately targeted, especially when it’s a film about Muslims written by three middle-class, middle-aged white guys. Shelina Zahra Janmohamedat at asks “Can Terror be Funny?” I wish she didn’t make generalisations like “Muslims will find it hysterically funny”, especially when the film takes care over showing the fractious, internally conflicted nature of any group brought together by ardent belief in any ideology, but it’s an interesting read. See also the review at Muslim View, which calls it “the Muslim version of The Life of Brian” and “one of the most profound pieces of insight into Muslim extremism and all that surrounds it to have been produced in recent years.”
  • The parody of British jihadists has been done before in Monkey Dust, where West Bromwich’s would-be terrorist cell is constantly distracted by one of their mums (“You can do your jihad now but I’ll need the table in 20 minutes so I can set your tea out”):

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17 thoughts on “Four Lions: War Goes Bang

  1. I felt the tragic resolution of the film worked really well in capturing the speed with which the group ideology deteriorates when broken down to the individual. At the opening of the final act you really get behind the group, much as you would in any buddy movie. The sing-alongs on the trip down the M1, they’re all set to go out in a blaze of glory. But then Hassan falters, gets the carpet pulled from underneath him by Barry, and the final act just kicks into a high gear.

    As the three last mujahideen sprint around London you see their conviction falter, and the grand narrative of holy suicide falter with it. Waj gets talked out of it, but dies in a mistake which disturbingly echoed the Charles Demenezes case, and Barry has a hiccup of his own kind. Confronting the final moment Omar’s faltering rhetoric continues when he finally bumps into his work colleague. His daft story of being a ‘Spook’ for MI5, just like his convoluted retelling of the Lion King, struggles with pop-cultural analogies to explain the unjustifiable.

    Your point about the fake news ending softening the blow is true, but I guess the comedy maxim “leave ’em laughing” could not be avoided.

    • Thanks, Burntretina – You’re right that the ending denies them any serenity. Imagine what a different film, and how much more of a controversial film, this would have been had any of them said a prayer before dying. Morris has played down the religious angle, for justifiable reasons (he’s focused on the mundane materiality of this sort of thing, tearing it out of any grander purpose), but it leaves a story untold about quite how they got to this state of oblivious determination. Are we meant to conclude that Omar is actually the ringleader of a group of people who would be aimless, gormless and formless without him? Apparently the most reasonable of the group, he’s the one who engineers or leads everyone else into death, and all because he can’t back down once it’s all in motion. He doesn’t want to admit he screwed up at the training camp, so pretends he’s had the go ahead for the big mission. It seemed like none of them had really reflected upon the actuality of their impending death. You’re right – it’s all the pop culture reference points that keep them distracted from that awful truth.

  2. I saw the film last week and have been holding off on commenting on it until I got my thoughts together. I do know it’s my favourite Morris work since Jam.

    The film itself succeeds to my mind due to eschewing episodic skits courtesy of the strong undercurrent of tragedy and anger. This isn’t simply, as Rory Bremner described it at a talk in University College Dublin, Dad’s Army with Jihadis.

    It’s an attack on the presumptions of the media coverage of Islamist terrorism and the actions of Western governments in Afghanistan/Iraq. I was happy to see Riz cast as Omar, as he is also responsible for the excellent Post 9/11 Blues:

    The focus of the film is not simply the idiocy of the five jihadis, but the arrogance of the Western nations that promote the invasion as a righteous cause. Waj unknowingly conflates these opposing forces in describing himself as a ‘Paki Rambo’.

    “The four lions seem to have indoctrinated themselves; they are not the duped offshoots in a political resistance movement, but the offshoot of twisted logic that puts them in a position where they feel like they have no choice but to blow themselves up”

    The strongest scenes in the film for me feature Omar’s family, wherein his wife and child smile on as they discuss his onrushing death. There’s a weird calm to these sequences, the surreality lent by a reversal of the righteousness of the cause. In short – the ‘Four Lions’, do not need to be indoctrinated. There’s plenty of reasons for them to do what they do, as their whole culture has been disenfranchised by the West and described as a dangerous offshoot of Islamic fascism.

    This is tremendously sad and forms the tragic core of the film, but then Morris throws in the Wookie scene and I find myself laughing again.

    • Excellent observations, Somnopolis. Sometimes I think I should hold back on blogging about something until it’s settled in my mind or I’ve seen it again, but I have to balance that with my goldfish memory and the fear that I’ll forget all about it in a couple of days’ time. You’ve recalled some great incidents that had slipped my memory (it’s a film packed with incident). I agree that there’s a vein of criticism of the coverage of terrorism, but mostly I think it really does want to get beyond the media and figure out what might make somebody do something like this, or at least how they might rationalise it to themselves. It doesn’t let them get away with simplistic explanations like revenge for the invasion of Iraq. None of them can articulate their aims in political terms (“Jews and slags and that” – I liked the references to “slags”, since it reminds us that the 7/7 bombers were not just fighting a political war, as Mohammad Sidique Khan put it in his video: they were also outraged by girls in crop-tops). Only Omar has a go: he’s the acceptable face of jihad. He rails against consumerism, McDonald’s etc., all targets which I personally hate as well. His colleagues are not on the same page (“Why don’t they go to Chicken Cottage?”).

      The scene where Omar says a coded farewell to his wife is beautifully (under)played. You’re right – their relationship is one of the most daring aspects of the film, though I would have liked to know much more about her. Her acceptance of his martyrdom is chilling, but never seems to come from a lack of love. We’re left to guess at why she doesn’t question him or even express regret that he “must” go through with it. And I think Omar feels compelled to follow through with the plot because he doesn’t want to disappoint his wife and son, who tacitly promote and sustain the mythos of the suicide bomber.

      On the question of indoctrination, I find it difficult to understand how anyone could independently decide to blow themselves up for any cause – there always has to be an extra pressure, a promise of reward or a rhetorical smokescreen to get you over the psychological hurdle that it seems so counterintuitive. I don’t see many mullahs who advocate armed resistance taking up arms themselves or strapping a bomb to their own chest, but I see plenty of young people who are promised a sense of self-worth if they do the job on behalf of someone more sheltered and powerful. Indoctrination, in whatever form, is what persuades people to do things that are irrational, or against their own best interests, or ultimately futile or counterproductive. At least, that’s what I wanted to say, so maybe I shouldn’t have said “indoctrinated themselves”, when I was thinking about how the film tries to explain the logical twists and turns these characters make to psych themselves up for a suicide mission.

      My favourite joke involved Mini Baby Bel. There’s your holy war right there…….

  3. I saw the film yesterday at the ungodly hour of 10am, part of the Sydney Film festival. Not sold out but getting there.

    Chris and Kayvan Novak, along with a member of the Chasers, were in attendance for a Q@A afterward (or should that be a Q@laugh…).

    – Kayvan Novak said that this was the fifth time he had played a terrorist in a film, the first time in a comedy.

    – ‘There are jarring hints that their attack is really aimed at “Jews and slags and that”, but no real sense that these men are acting on religious ideological imperatives.’

    I agree on this, this lack of context did let down the film, as did the lack of reference to the role media plays as a recruitment tool. In relation to this a comment made by Chris on editing the film was quite interesting with reference to a scene that did not make it into the final cut.

    Barry (the one who wants to blow up a Mosque – which has interesting parallels to the burning of the Reistag, a number of bombings in Italy during the 1980s that were blamed on left wing groups but were in fact committed by right wing groups masquerading as the left, theories that the Twin Towers attack was perpetrated by the USA Government, Gandhi’s non-violent approach as a means by which to bring about violent acts and shame…)… Barry shows the new recruit a video of an Israeli soldier by a tank been shot in the leg, an action which results in much laughter and rejoicing.

    Barry then looks on the hard drive for another clip of a Palestinian been shot by an Israeli soldier. Unable to locate this he eventually plays the same clip again telling the new recruit to imagine that the soldier is really a Palestinian and the tank he is beside is really a car with his wife and children in. As the Israeli soldier is shot on this second viewing Barry starts cursing the Israelis for shooting the Palestinian.

    This scene also introduced the gag about shoving a bean up your dick for the cause (after ‘ would you rip off your own head and eat it’ for the cause).

    On the accidental death of one of them as well as a sheep, I was reminded of a few other accidental deaths in film: Pulp Fiction and Out of Sight.

    The discussion concerning if this is the death of a martyr or not was excellent, reminding me of a joke about two Baptists discussing which church they belong to…

    Another point that came across strongly, not only during the introduction by Chris but the talk afterwards, was the origins of the idea for writing the script: the stupidity and comedy encountered in his readings on those involved with such groups.

    He provided as examples: a group of Yemenis who planned to direct a boat loaded with explosives into a US warship; after months of rehearsals they loaded the boat for the actual attack only for the boat to sink due to the weight; transcripts from surveillance in which people can be heard discussing whether an ant is an animal or not; discussing the attack on the Twin Towers with sound effects – making sounds of planes attacking with machine guns, (which reminded me of King Kong); Mullah Omar dressing as a sheik and giving an interview in which he repeatedly mis-quotes from the Koran and is repeatedly corrected by those conducting the interview, while members of his group double over with laughter… there were lots more such examples given, these are the only ones I can remember now…

    On this more generally Chris said: ‘Been mockable is not incompatible with been dangerous’.

    Such ideas would have worked well within the film. Indeed, it would have been interesting to incorporate some of the actual transcripts from surveillance (aka the Sarah Palin interview).

    – Removing product branding was discussed a great deal: covering up logos (Coca-cola and Flora for example) during filming as well as removing them post production.

    – That the car-key Barry swallows is for a Ford while the car he drives is actually Citroen.

    – Best question asked: ‘Will your next film be spherical?’

    – The line ‘fuck mini baby bell’ was not in the script, popping out during the take.

    – As an aside, a few other films I caught and would recommend were: I am Love (which featured Polaroids – so i will be posting on this shortly), Budrus (uplifting), The Temptation of St Tony (topical due to the current discussions on the DVD release of Salo here in Australia:

    Four Lions: not perfect but enjoyable nonetheless. It seemed to go down well (no-one left during the screening as far as I was aware) and the talk afterwards was packed out. I think I gave it 4/5.

    • Superb – thanks, Sean, for filling readers in on the Q&A. It’s bizarre to me, as a long-term Chris Morris fan, that he almost never gave interviews (maybe two or three times in 20 years), and now he is so available for commentary in his work. It marks his transition to a new phase of production that I hope will develop in new and interesting directions.

      In terms of the “Jews and slags and that” comment, I thought it was jarring because it reminded me that I wasn’t watching simple knockabout fun, but people with quite sinister views, even as it reminded me how vague, malformed and sloppily held were those views which were supposed to be driving these men towards passionate martyrdom. I can see why they cut out the scene with the Israeli soldier – it makes an important point, but sounds rather obvious and forced.

      I’m glad you’ve still got the field of polaroid studies covered – keep up that good work!

  4. Hi,

    Wonderful website you’re tending here! I’m writing my dissertation on Švankmajer, which is what directed me here, but like you am also a long-time Morris fan.

    My thoughts on Nathan Barley is that while the ‘Shoreditch twats’ phenomena had passed by the time of release (presumably having more currency when Brooker wrote the Barley listings for TV Go Home), Barley is being used (occasionally clumsily) as a metonymn for an insiduous kind of ‘post-ethical’ thinking characterised by 4chan, Family Guy and the youtube comments section. So a joke like Barley being asked the age of the girl he just slept with and him replying “technically a Polanski!” isn’t just there to show that Barley’s a prick (though that’s part of it) it’s trying, I think, to say something about the way that serious moral issues are transformed into memes by the kind of glib, ironic smirkery that Barley and his friends engage in.

    My girlfriend Anna feels this but reckons that since there’s no character to oppose this trend (Dan becoming just as reprehensible as the other idiots being the general narrative schemata of every episode) it suggests that this is an inescapeable downwards spiral, which kind of blunts the programme’s moral force.

    It might seem strange talking about Morris as a moralist, since so much of Brass Eye exists in opposition to knee-jerk moralising, but I do think that Nathan Barley could be read as a curious defence of political correctness – the kind of defence offered by Stewart Lee in 41st Best Stand-Up Comedian, for example.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Adam – I’m glad you showed up to deliver such a cogent defence of Nathan Barley. I pledge to revisit it when I have some spare time. I wanted to do a book-length study of Morris’s work at one point, but it would have ended up too descriptive, since his satire tends to speak for itself. Wait, did I say all this in the original post?

      I’m reminded, though, that Four Lions really crammed in some sentiment to soften the pessimism of most of his TV oeuvre. It’s a striking addition to his style, but not an unwelcome one. I’m loving the term “post-ethical”. Well put. It’s a great description of the degeneration of radical, oppositional art to self-gratification. And, oh, the YouTube comments section? What a nasty pit that place is.

      Would welcome any thoughts on Svankmajer, too.

  5. Thanks for the kind words!

    I’m afraid I would find it difficult to usefully summarise my thoughts on Svankmajer at the moment (I’m at that weird late stage of entrenchment in the project) but the dissertation’s main agenda is a reading of his 80s and 90s output informed by thing theory (a la Bill Brown). I’m quite keen to introduce some materialism into film studies since however illuminating post-structuralist work can be, it always feels weirdly divorced from the experience of actually watching a film, especially a film by a director like Svankmajer who is so sensitiveness to the tactility and sheer physical presence of objects. Lacan and co. just aren’t a good fit.

    When I’ve handed it in though I’d be more than happy to email it to you if it’s something you’d be interested in!

    I think a book length study of Morris’ work would be great, though I know what you mean about how his satire tends to speak for itself. For that reason, I think Jam and Blue Jam would probably be the most interesting ones to write about.

    • It sounds fascinating, and I’d love to read it, even while it’s in progress. I have Bill Brown down in my bibliography for a project I’m preparing on Cinema and Puppetry, though I haven’t got round to the chapter on Svankmajer yet. It sounds like an ideal approach – nobody expresses more thingness!

  6. I’ve sent the second section to what seems to be your academic inbox! Not sure if that’s the best place to send it, but here’s hoping! Nearly finished it; I’m cautiously pleased.

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