" The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as the Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient. And as the philosophy of the orient expresses it, life is not important. "
— General William Westmoreland, Hearts and Minds

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I asked my nephew, who has family in Poland what to expect when I went for a visit. He told me that Poland in the 2010s was like America in the 1980s — a bustling economy and a people who know it. For example, there are lots of gleaming new malls; America has moved on, but in Poland, mall culture is at its peak.

Maybe the same is true for Polish films. America has moved on, but in Poland ’80s-style war movies are the trend. Case in point: Karbala.

War Movie Styles

Poles hold City Hall for the Americans and Iraqis
Poles hold City Hall for the Americans and Iraqis

Karbala is a drama about Polish soldiers sent to Iraq after Saddam Hussein was toppled. It is competently made, but it also feels dated. The latest U.S. war moves like Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker have a lean style. There’s very little extraneous music, more soundscape than symphonic. The overexposed look and jaggedly handheld camera suggest raw nerves, stripped bare.

So when in Karbala the symphony orchestra starts emoting — trying to add tension to an already tense battle scene, it feels really awkward. That in turn makes the plentiful war-movie clichés feel even more tired.

Band of Brothers

One of the central characters is a newcomer, an earnest medic. In his first battle, ordered to retrieve a wounded companion, he freezes. Another man goes in his place and is killed.

Another newcomer is the younger brother of a soldier already serving. The older brother is angry to see him; he was counting on the younger brother to stay home and protect the family.

The commander is a little older than the other men. He’s the level-headed voice of reason in the film. He calls home frequently. He encourages his wife to spend money on the remodel. “That’s why I’m here,” he says.

Then there is Salim, the local fixer who helps the Poles but who does not necessarily share the same loyalties as the rest of the squad.

The Americans are running the show in Iraq, a fact the Poles and Bulgarians accept with a sense of resignation. It is the Americans who assign the Poles to take and hold City Hall. That’s the seemingly simple assignment that turns into something much bigger, something worthy of a feature film.

War, What Is It Good For?

There are tense scenes in Karbala. A big street battle near city hall makes you wonder how many of our protagonists will make it out alive. Salim — maybe selflessly or perhaps nefariously — leads a single soldier who got separated from his unit, away from the troops and into his non-occupied neighborhood.

But the scens don’t add up to a great war movie. At the very least, Karbala feels like something we’ve seen many times before.

Karbala might be worth buying a ticket, though, if you’re looking for an action-packed alternative in your film-festival day. It’s also not bad if you’re looking to supplement your insight into the Polish zeitgeist. There are some revealing throwaway lines about the Americans and NATO. The Polish commander commiserates with the Bulgarian commander about having to learn Russian when they were growing up.

Or, maybe what you’ll learn is that war movie clichés haven’t gone out of style.