In October 2014 – the eve of the British pull-out from conflict in Afghanistan – a unit of five squaddies is under fire in the Hindu Kush. Coming to a huge British-engineered fort (“Leftovers from the First Afghan War”, as one of them wryly observes), they see another five soldiers, also in British uniform, entering the structure ahead. Going in after them, all they find is echoing labyrinthine interiors, and a coffin-like crate filled to the brim with millions of American dollars. As they spend the night conflicted over the cash and chasing their tails in the dark, it becomes increasingly clear that they have become trapped in a time rift with monsters of their own making.
Written and directed by Louis Melville (The Man Who Sold The World, 2009), Boots On The Ground is a highly contained genre freakout that nonetheless manages to offer broader commentary on the nature of war: its opportunities for cameraderie and treachery, its roots in profiteering and the filthiest kind of lucre, and of course its endless cyclicality. It is also the first British feature to have been shot entirely by its own cast (Tom Ainsley, Ian Virgo, Ryan McParland, Valmike Rampersand, Sally Day) using the sort of head-cams employed by actual soldiers in combat, which means that its story is reconstructed, in ‘real time’, from five different and increasingly confused points of view.
This (un)found footage, though certainly showcasing the sort of aimless, prolonged and repetitive wandering about that is often associated with the format, also takes advantage of this very shortcoming to encapsulate, from a ground-up perspective, something essential about the fog – and hell – of war. “It’s all so fucking pointless,” complains Conway, the only woman in the unit, of her county’s latest, but no doubt not last, adventurism in Afghanistan – and as the squad, lost, meanders in circles and in terrified, desperate flight from their own shadows and ghosts, her words are realised in the expressive language of horror.
Accordingly Boots On The Ground falls into line with The Keep (1983), Jacob’s Ladder (1990) and The Bunker (2001), playing out the experience of military entanglement as a haunting, mortality-focused genre piece. Meanwhile the film’s bifurcating ambiguities, introduced near the beginning when the squad chooses which of two routes around the fort to take, is sustained to and beyond the film’s end, as parallel storylines engage and clash to dizzying effect.