“Just get the damn swastikas on the turrets and get them going again while the crazy bastards are still shooting in the right direction,” shouts film director Sam Pulloff, standing amidst a squadron of Syrian army tanks, as they advance toward an ISIS desert stronghold. “And for God’s sake, get those guys to remember to put the right helmets on – they’re the Afrika Corps now, so its the coal scuttles, not the tin hats!” With mortar shells falling amongst them and small arms fire kicking up the sand, Pulloff’s locally recruited props crew hastily pull British Eighth Army insignia from the T-72 tanks and distribute World War Two style German helmets to the armoured unit’s accompanying infantry, as the director moves his camera crew to the opposite side of the tanks. “This way, it won’t be so obvious that these are the same tanks we just saw advancing from the British lines, especially after we’ve reversed the film so that, with German insignia, they appear to be travelling in the opposite direction, towards the Limey tanks,” he explains. “With careful editing, we’ll have the effect of an entire tank battle going on, using just half a dozen tanks. The fact that they are being shot at by those ISIS guys , using real ammunition, will add to the realism – if a couple of them get knocked out, all the better!”
Pulloff is one of a growing number of low budget film makers exploiting real war zones to make combat movies on the cheap. The director – whose previous direct-to-DVD hits have included cold war drama Hot in Havana (shot in Chechnya) and Vietnam war epic Sizzling in Saigon (shot in Colombia) – is currently shooting his World War Two North African drama, Torrid in Tobruk, in the middle of the war in Syria, filming actual combat to use as battle footage in the movie. “Look, do you have any idea how much this would cost to stage back home? Do you have any idea of how expensive it is to hire real tanks, pyrotechnics and extras, let alone the costs of costumes?” he asks, when challenged as to the morality, let alone risks, of shooting in a combat zone. “And the days when you could hire half the Spanish army to re-enact World War Two for a movie on the cheap died with Franco! Believe me, for us low budget guys, this is the best way: no need for props or expensive special effects. Plus, it brings the reality and brutality of war direct to the audience. Besides, you wouldn’t believe how inexpensive this way of filming is – you don’t need permits or anything, we just bung the senior officers a few dollars and they’ll even start their offensives to fit in with our shooting schedules!” Pulloff dismisses criticisms that his use of a modern war zone undermines the historical accuracy of his film, due to the use of anachronistic equipment. “Do you really think the sort of people who watch these films care about that sort of things,” he snorts in derision. “A tank is a tank, for Christ’s sake! Even the uniforms don;t matter, just so long as they’ve got the right head gear, nobody cares!”
The activities of Pulloff and his colleagues has fuelled fears that they might actually be prolonging and agitating conflicts in order to use them as backdrops for their films. There is, however, nothing new in film makers using war zones as sets. “Back in the Mexican revolution, for instance, a US newsreel company did a deal with Pancho Villa to film all his battles against the government forces,” film historian Luke Tugger points out. “He timed all his attacks to ensure that they had the best light for filming.” Tugger believes that this was just the beginning of film makers dictating how wars were fought in order to ensure they obtained the best footage. “The fact is that Hitler actually shot himself in 1943, ending the war in Europe, but the big movie companies and newsreel producers insisted that it had to carry on,” he claims. “They were making a lot of money out of war movies – they just couldn’t afford to have it end so abruptly.” According to the film historian, Hollywood’s biggest studios came to an agreement with Roosevelt that the war in Europe continue for another two years. An actor was sent to Berlin to replace Hitler and ensure that hostilities carried on as before. “Of course, they also had an agreement with the Germans that they’d let us win from then onwards – that’s why D-Day was such a success, against all the odds,” he asserts. “The only problem lay with the Soviets: they just wanted to take Berlin, regardless. So the US started sending aid via Lend Lease to the Germans to use against the Reds on the Eastern Front – that’s why you always see the Germans using US tanks and half-tracks in war movies.”
It has also long been rumoured that the entire Vietnam War was invented by CBS News as a means of boosting ratings. “It was all Walter Cronkite’s idea – he came up with it after a marathon session on his bong,” says Tugger. “All the location reports were filmed in Florida. CBS were banking on the fact that so many Americans never leave their own state, let alone their own country, nobody would ever know the difference. At the height of CBS’ reporting, it became impossible for any Thai, Vietnamese or Chinese restaurants to operate in Florida, as all of their staff were working as extras in the news reports.” According to the film historian, both the American people and international community were so convinced by Cronkite and CBS’ fake reports that they believed there actually was a war going on in South East Asia. “Eventually the US government was forced to play along, bombing Cambodia and calling up thousands of young American males for war service,” he claims. “The even sent a few of them over to Vietnam, but most of them they just stuffed full of experimental drugs so that they’d hallucinate fighting in the jungles and all those atrocities and other weird shit.”
Tugger’s claims have been widely derided by historians, with groups representing World War Two and Vietnam veterans condemning him for a lack of respect for the sacrifices made by those who fought and died in the conflicts. Pulloff, meanwhile, has completed his location filming in Syria and is currently completing production of Torrid in Tobruk in the Nevada desert. “This is the other beauty of doing the action stuff for real in Syria,” he explains. “The stars of the movie never have to be exposed to any risk – it slashes insurance costs. Not to mention travel expenses, as they never leave the US!” Torrid in Tobruk is scheduled for a DVD release later this year and will be available for streaming shortly afterwards.