Saddam in Upington


The Mail & Guardian
October 3, 1997

Johannesburg - Andrew Worsdale went on set at Bravo Two Zero — an international war-action film being shot in South Africa

In January 1991 an eight-man SAS (Special Air Services) team went behind Iraqi lines on a mission to take out Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's portable scud missile launchers and break strategic communication lines between Baghdad and North West Iraq.

The top secret sortie, dubbed Bravo Two Zero, was commanded by Sergeant Andy McNab, who has since written a bestselling book of the same name. It details the group's drop into enemy territory and their subsequent capture. They were tortured and humiliated by Saddam Hussein's military henchmen.

On August 12 this year British director Tom Clegg became the legendary operation's new leader — this time in Upington — as director of the film based on the book of the fated mission. Bravo Two Zero is budgeted at $6.8-million and is a co-production between the BBC and Durban-based Videovision, with the local production arm and distributor taking all foreign rights. Although shot on Super 16mm, the picture will be blown up to 35mm for theatrical release worldwide.

Upington cheaply replaced the dustbowl of scudland (the production used massive 2500cc wind machines to propel dust, sleet and snow to recreate desert conditions); the "bombed-out" bit of Fordsburg stood in as a shell-pocked Baghdad; and a film set built at Johannesburg's Nasrec substituted for interiors at the United Kingdom's Huddersfield air base and prison cells in Iraq.

The movie's art department has had some strange challenges in recreating both sides of the Gulf War. Production designer Dave Barkham says: "In terms of military stuff we had a damn hard time. It was a state of the art war. We could easily find stuff to match the run-down armoury of the Iraqis, but were stumped when it came to the allies' technological war-machines." The crew received a huge amount of help from local Iraqis — translation of signage, the supply of cigarettes and the proper way to pour tea.

In the real-life saga, when the crack team arrived in the desert they hijacked a dilapidated cab. Barkham and his team used an old chev and, with Andy McNab's knowledge, put in Travis Bickle's (Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver) driver's licence number and ID. McNab, who says De Niro is aware of the homage, worked as military adviser on Michael Mann's crime-thriller Heat and received an honorary award from the Gun Owners' Association of America recognising the most authentic weapon-play on screen.

McNab proudly acknowledges that a bunch of Los Angeles gangsters recently based a heist on the movie but were scuttled because LA police are in the forefront when it comes to celluloid examples. The man himself, hunky, yet not a beef-cake, is as light-footed with reporters as he is with a gun and is very happy with the recreation of his real-life ordeal while he supervises on set.

Gabi Molnar, make-up artist on the shoot, says: "Andy wrote the book but he didn't ever see himself; he only felt the pain and saw the others enduring it. It's rewarding to try and recreate his wounds from his memories of the others'. What's also amazing is that he completely healed himself — he has no permanent scars."

Director Tom Clegg (best known for his work on The Sweeney TV series), a laid-back yet consummate pro, says: "It's always difficult to match the places when you're working on a true story. But there were only eight people on the mission, and the audience will never know. Anyway it's more important to capture the flavour of the piece than get site specifics."

The cast underwent training for three intensive days with the SANDF's Reconnaissance One before filming began, and they learnt to fire M1s with attached rocket-launchers and all the regular SAS fire-kit to make things look authentic.

Included in their training from South Africa's elite military corps were detailed descriptions of what it's like to encounter the sights and smells of burning flesh after an intensive armoured strike.

"They told us this movie has none of that American automatic fire stuff ... this isn't gung-ho bullshit ... it's specialist military professionalism," says Bartlett.

British actor Ian Curtis says things in Upington were "totally fucked. It was bloody boiling during the day and freezing at night, so the conditions must have been similar. we didn't have to do a whole lot of acting to make it seem real." As Clegg says: "It's a very, very good story. I mean, you've got to do something really stupid to mess it up." Many local viewers will be so caught up in the yarn they'll forget to notice the Euphrates is really the Orange River.

Bravo Two Zero will be released in 1998.


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