The Bullet is Still in my Pocket (1974)
Hi all, Nate here. Continuing my occasional series of "Reviews of Movies From Cultures We Hate/Don't Understand", today I thought I'd look at a long-lost Egyptian movie from 1974. Will this help me understand anything of what is going on in Cairo today? No. Will it help me understand all the convoluted Machiavellian machinations between the conservative Muslim Brotherhood and the more moderate Western-leaning factions in the jumbled mess that is the post-Mubarik Egyptian parliament system? Hell no. But this movie does have some pretty girls and a lot of various exploding things, so I'm happy to judge it on its own merits (or lack thereof).
We open in 1967 with Mahmoud, an average-joe enlisted soldier, as he recuperates in an Egyptian hospital. Egypt had just gotten their asses handed to them by the Israelis in the Six-Day War and Mahmoud is lucky to be alive. We flashback/PTSD fever-dream with him to a time when his unit was chopped up by a strafing Israeli helicopter in the Sinai desert. He was then captured and taken to Israel to work as a slave where he suffered all sorts of psyche-rotting/spirit-breaking hardships, including having to watch the rascally and hated Jews machinegun a bunch of Egyptian POWs to death. After some months of this, a kindly old man sneaks Mahmoud back to Egypt on a fishing boat and that's where he ends up in the hospital.
Mahmoud takes a cig to calm his nerves.
Flashback to the war, it wasn't pleasant for him.
Having been given a discharge, Mahmoud returns to his village in the country. A lot has changed since the war and he's met with much contempt and derision by the locals. It seems that the war was quite unpopular and a national embarrassment (Egypt totally got beat down in less than a week) and there's much public distaste for the failures of the military. You can make your own parallels to the plight of returning US military vets from the Vietnam war in the same time period if you want (this movie was filmed in 1974, recall, a volatile time in American history as well).
He tussles on the train with a townie.
Mahmoud reconnects with his family, who is quite happy to see him (unclear how long he's been gone but surely a couple of months). He also gets back together with his girlfriend and all seems to be going well for him after a while. They chase each other through the groves, kiss by the Nile, and giggle like silly kids in love and it seems that Mahmoud is healing from his wartime trauma with the power of love (awww!). Hers is a surprisingly meaty role, more so than I was expecting when she first appeared, and the actress does a commendable job showing a variety of emotions and feelings during her scenes in the first act. She's also quite pretty and a fair-skinned redhead to boot, not at all a classical "Middle Eastern look" and if you didn't hear her speak Arabic you'd think she was from Chicago and not Cairo.
Mahmoud's mom and sister are overjoyed to see him again.
As is his girlfriend.
She's so pretty, in fact, that she catches the lecherous eye of a skinny-mustached/greasy-haired/leisure suit-wearing corrupt local government official. Though their relationship starts out flirty in a way that makes you wonder if she's really that happy with Mahmoud, in the end a creep is a creep and the official rapes her in her own house one day. You don't see anything (strict Egyptian film censorship laws) but it's clear what's happening and it isn't good.
Not going to end well for her.
Mahmoud is understandably enraged but powerless, both due to his lowly position relative to the official and his own unstated cowardice to stand up to him in any meaningful way. They have meetings where the official doesn't deny that he raped the girl but it's clear that he's untouchable in the Egyptian class system. The girl's father is less than no help, he's more concerned about holding on to his privilege and honor than his daughter, he even slaps her around when she complains about being raped. Being a woman must suck at times, especially in such a male-dominated culture.
Feel for them both.
Mahmoud is still in the Army Reserves (or whatever passes for the Reserves in Egypt) and we see him imagining killing the official on the firing range in some fanciful wish-fulfillment fantasy moment. He's angry, he's helpless, he gets in misguided fistfights with his fellow soldiers because of it, and he takes to carrying a bullet in his pocket (see the title) that he plans on using to kill the man one day. There's all manner of ancillary characters here, other soldiers, some random officer guy, all who come and go and have conversations with Mahmoud, but none of it really sticks with you as memorable, and none of them really help him deal with his main emotional problems (boiling rage and impotence with his poor stature in society).
Like camping, except with guns.
We also have some tedious training scenes in the desert as Mahmoud's unit digs matching holes in the hard dry earth and practices the same sort of aimless suicide charges across open ground that got the Egyptian Army butchered in the 1967 war. There's a fair amount of running time spent showing all aspects of the training routine, almost like the director was trying to do some recruiting for the Army, even if it doesn't look like any fun at all to be lugging those heavy guns around the blazing hot desert all day. They even undergo some shelling by the Israelis and live to laugh about it later (the Jewish State is still across the DMZ being cantankerous).
Army life is pretty much the same all the world over, lots of standing around in rows.
It's not just a one-sided Phony War either, as we see Mahmoud's unit tapped for a night-time commando raid across the DMZ into Israeli-held Sinai. Filmed in red-light and by flashlight, we follow the commandos as they sneak over and dynamite some random building and knife some sleepy sentries. While I'm sure Mahmoud is in there somewhere, the scene is too dark and the editing too confusing to really tell if he does anything other than run around with a rifle and get some of his aggression out. I hate to admit this, but in the dark, wearing helmets and identical uniforms, I simply cannot tell one Arab guy from the next.
That's a Mil Mi-8 Hip, I know you wanted to know that.
Mahmoud comes back home and talks with girlfriend about how she's doing. While she still loves him, the trauma of her rape has left her terribly gun-shy around all men, even Mahmoud. In one powerful scene, he innocently tries to help her across a muddy creek and she refuses to even take his hand and she falls in the mud. He's a compassionate and caring man throughout all of this and you can see how her pain is tormenting for him as well. I wish my subtitles weren't so bad (apparently written by a half-deaf illiterate goat herder) because I'm sure there's some really compelling dialogue in these scenes.
Will she ever trust anyone again?
And......that's all for that. All the great emotional drama stuff you've just seen in the last 75 minutes? Over. All that dramatic lead-up and character development? Gone. All that wonderful subtext and social commentary with the raped girl and her impotent boyfriend? Done. From here on out the movie flips instantly to a generic blood-and-guts war film (sigh). It's 1973 now and the Yom Kippur War is about to start and Mahoud goes back off to the frontlines (we never even get to see him say goodbye). After some build-up scenes of spinning radar dishes and jet fighters taking off it's a non-stop festival of exploding things from here on out. In fact, 45 of the last 48 minutes of the movie are endless shots of guns, bombs, tanks, rockets, all manner of exploding stuff, all sans dialogue for the most part. Stupefying boring, even if it's interesting to see how segmented pontoon bridges work. Not sure why all this padding is in here, perhaps to pander to the military? But how many times can you watch stock footage shots of airplanes taking off and landing over and over and over again before it starts to suck? In fact the movie stops becoming a movie and becomes a propaganda film for the Egyptian military and their "great victory" over the hated Israelis in the Yom Kippur War.
Ah, segmented pontoon bridge, nice, but do we really need to see 5 full minutes of it being set up and deployed?
At one point we see Mahmoud playing the hero role, attacking tanks with grenades and symbolically trampling on blood-soaked Israeli flags. And the bullet is still in his pocket through it all, his good-luck charm (we even see him take it out and kiss it). The problem is that Mahmoud, despite being our central protagonist, is mostly absent from this long, extended paean to weapons of war, which is Filmmaking 101 gone terribly wrong. It's ok (I guess) to have a long combat sequence (45 damn minutes long!) as long as your protagonist has a central role in it, but it drags the story down like an anchor when the only interesting and fleshed-out character in the entire movie is gone for nearly the entire third act. And I thought they were setting Mahmoud up as the jaded anti-war character anyway, the first act had him traumatized and questioning everything about his military service. But in his few minutes on screen in the climactic third act he's just a generic Rambo figure with gritted teeth and a chattering AK-47, kinda boring.
Some nice visual shots in here.
I will say that there's a great deal of practical cooperation between the Army and the filmmakers on display here. Which is not really surprising in a country that was essentially a military dictatorship at the time, but it's still pretty cool to see that those are real tanks driving around shooting at stuff and surely "real soldiers" playing "movie soldiers". It certainly adds an air of authenticity to the combat scenes, something that you just rarely see in modern movies where the US Army is loathe to let you even film their parked tanks from a distance and everything has to be CGI or stock footage cribbed from other movies.
Even Michael Bay couldn't get the US Army to let him RPG one of their tanks for his movies.
With literally less than three minutes until the closing credits, Mahoud finally comes back home, this time a war hero (ah, fickle populace...). His hot girlfriend loves him again and all is well. The corrupt official who raped her is exposed and "reassigned to another area", though that's just spoken of, not actually seen. Of course, by now, after having been absent from the relationship drama plotline for the last hour, it's impossible to really care that much anymore. All those pounding howitzers and hammering rockets really sucked all the emotional impact out of the entire first half of the movie, and that's the viewer's loss.
Mahmoud is redeemed (sort of).
My suggesting is, if you want to watch a pretty good drama that tackles some serious social issues, make sure you turn it off when the shooting starts. But if you want to see some really great action set-pieces with tanks on fire and exploding Jews, then fast-forward to the third act and enjoy the carnage. Watching the entire thing in one sitting, however, is far less fun. My two cents.
Written in December 2012 by Nathan Decker.
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