In 1993, over one hundred US soldiers were dropped into the urban heart of Mogadishu, Somalia. The purpose was to perform an operation to capture a violent warlord by the name of Mohamed Farrah Aidid and his closest members. The purpose of the operation was to quell the ongoing civil war. The war was taking a devastating toll on the civilian population as supply and food shipments from Red Cross agencies were hoarded. Starvation was the warlord’s main weapon. It was decided by the US that intervention was the only way to prevent the continuation of the atrocities. Unfortunately, the US soldiers were not prepared to face the tactical nightmare Mogadishu would become when two of their helicopters were shot down during the operation. All the stories of the soldiers involved were later recorded and written in a book by Mark Bowden, entitled Black Hawk Down. It was this book that a screenplay and eventually a feature film would be based on in the 2001 adaptation Black Hawk Down, directed by Ridley Scott. If anyone had previously seen a Ridley Scott film, they would know that he is meticulous in creating detail and realism. Black Hawk Down does nothing less than emanate this style of directing. He has helped push a new wave in directing style, where realism in situations and characters account for as much of the movie as the plot. These both apply to narrative and genre theories. The new elements that have been inserted into the creation of the “war movie” genre and narrative have added new depth and meaning to what we see and understand about the people who fight our wars. The image of the US soldier has been elevated to almost mythic proportions, partly due to ad campaigns, but also to the portrayal of war and the realism that moves us closer to the fighting than we can ever imagine. The beauty is that the answers are explained by philosophical geniuses who have all contributed theories to understanding why we think in certain ways and experience certain pleasures. Everything we interpret is relative to our own experiences. The purpose of this essay is to analyze Black Hawk Down using the various narrative theories of these intellectuals. Some provide thoughts on the narration of the story such as Propp, Todorov, Barthes and Levi Strauss, while others look at the genres and their various approaches to creation and production; finally, semiotic analysis allows us to know how we interpret the images we see (both syntagmatically and paradigmatically).
Narrative theory applies to the structure of the production, whether it is in film, television, literature or radio. Analysts of narrative theory usually grasp the basic structure of the particular genre before viewing the production based on formulaic series of events associated with that genre. These series of events that have an appearance of repetition, according to Valdimir Propp, are called narratemes. According to Propp, depending on the medium/genre, the events can be predetermined by using his 32 narrative functions and 8 spheres of action. The medium does not have to include all 32 of his functions, but the ones they do contain will always happen in a specific order. Another theorist by the name of Todorov came along and simplified what Propp had been writing about. He generalized narratives to follow the path of “equilibrium-disequilibrium-equilibrium”. This is where Black Hawk Down takes a turn to the unique side. Because of the nature of the conflict, equilibrium never truly existed from the beginning. There may have been equilibrium in the US troop’s position, but the overall conflict presides over any minuscule balance. The movie begins panning over malnourished Somalis affected by the starvation campaign of Farrah Aidid while text scrolls across the screen explaining the situation. The first glimpse of US troops occurs here when the viewer watches them fly overhead in an SH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. The troops begin to watch a Red Cross shipment of food and supplies getting hoarded by the warlord Aidid’s men. The disequilibrium we had set in the beginning of the movie gets thrown to another level when civilians are shot attempting to take some food. This is where the movie continues to present its uniqueness. As the movie progresses, nothing goes as planned during the operation to capture the warlord. In the process of putting troops on the ground, two helicopters are shot out of the sky by Somali guerillas, further pushing the stability of the movie. This is why Todorov generalized about the narrative theory: not everything follows a standard, and the ones that don’t stand out, good or bad. In this case, the movie created a cinematic experience like most great war movies: immersive, intense and filled with feminine and masculine narratives (discussed later on). The movie eventually reached as much equilibrium as allotted due to the situation. In the end, 17 soldiers had been killed for an operation that was meant to be more than a grab-and-go. But one key aspect to Todorov’s theory is that the ending is ideologically significant. How it achieves this closure reveals how narratives function to maintain/challenge established power relations in society. Quite close to how the movie began, it ended, but this time with closure and equilibrium. The music and setting were serene with a feeling of despair, fitting the mood of both dying and/or dead civilians/soldiers because of the conflict in Mogadishu. To the soldiers at the end of the movie, it no longer became a fight for their own lives, but that for their fellow soldiers. A bond throughout the movie was created between them, and although some were lost to the fighting, the bond never disappeared. This is visible at the end of the movie when Josh Harnett’s character Eversmann spoke to a fallen soldier about returning home and talking to his parents about who he was, what he did, and why they should be proud of him. It was an underhanded way of making us look at relationships the soldiers built instead of letting us take a step back and ask why they were there in the first place. What makes this so ideologically significant? It is in the beginning of the movie when disequilibrium was first established: there were soldiers that were aware of this situation and asked what the purpose of the occupation was. This is why the ending of the movie is ideologically significant to established power relations, those between soldiers and their commanders, and how it came to a sincere closure to make everything seem justified. The idea that there are characters within a scripted movie that are given these lines reflects the observational talent the screenplay writers and directors have. It makes a bold statement to society that “we are aware”. Along with Propp and Todorov, another man by the name of Roland Barthes came and attempted, successfully, to answer the question of the narrative theory.
In Roland Barthes theory, he used five codes in order to form a network of meaning. This network, in turn, provides a framework for analyzing texts or in our case, a war movie. The codes are as following: action, enigma, semic, symbolic and cultural. Let’s begin with the idea of a cultural code. The cultural code is constituted by the points at which the text refers to common bodies of knowledge through a social construct. This makes the viewer have to have prior knowledge in order to understand the reference. These references are easily-identified traditions that could be scholarly, historical, mythological or stereotypical. In this case, the reference, and respectively the entire movie, was based on a time period in 1993 when the US attempted to quell a civil war. So between the traditions of history, scholar, myth, and stereotyping, history plays a large role. Black Hawk Down was created almost 10 years after the event. This gave the public enough time to “move past” the events, but also after only 10 years, it could still be on the minds of people who were old enough to comprehend and understand the conflict. To continue with Barthes’ codes, symbolic would be the next easiest to interpret. It exists to explicate the complexities of an element in the text. One of the most important entrance points into the symbolic is the antithetical because concepts suggest their opposites, which is argued by Levi-Strauss in the binary opposites theory. But the symbolic code does not merely break the code into binaries; instead it eradicates the boundary between opposites creating a “disturbance in classification.” (Coward) There are many elements to this movie that can be seen as symbolic. As stated earlier, the image of a US soldier means so much more that what can be seen on the surface. This movie attempts, and in reality, accomplishes, the symbolic image of a soldier. The image gets elevated to another level, the level of being mythic. To quote Eric Bana who plays Hoot, ‘When I get home people’ll ask me, “Hey Hoot, why do ya do it man? Why? Just some war junkie?” Ya know what I’ll say? I won’t say a goddamn word. Why? They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it.’ This is what embodies the American soldier today. It is about defending the country, yes, but more so about keeping the man next to you alive so he can go back home someday. Another symbolic image, which is the basis for the movie, is the downing of not one, but two of our helicopters. We have two massive machines facilitating the most advanced technology available that get shot down by a bunch of ill-trained guerillas from a country torn by war. More so than just that, after the second helicopter was overrun by guerillas and civilians, the military machine became nothing more than a toy with young kids jumping on the rotors. The image of this alone creates more than a feeling of defeat because it was scaled down from being a symbol of America’s productive might to nothing.
Two more codes written by Barthes include the semic and action (also known as proairetic). These codes are easily interlaced with other theories. Semic is closely related to semiotic analysis which focuses upon pieces of data in order to suggest abstract concepts. Semiotic analysis is on the conscious of the person viewing the object or product. We see or hear something and chose to recognize it as we have been taught. If we do not recognize it, we try to group it into a category in which we do understand. Semiotics will always be an interesting concept to study because of its conscious and subconscious nature. We recognize that the movie is based on real events, with that being the sign, but the individual stories paint the signified. On the other end, to look at syntagmatic codes, all you have to do is look at the narrative because it refers to how the product uses/used a series of images to create meaning in the viewer’s mind. The proairetic code is closely related to the text’s narrative structure. The basis of the proairetic is the dependency of syntagmatic codes along with the narrative theory (already discussed) as to understand the meaning of the images. The final code in Barthes theory is enigma, or hermeneutic. Elements of the text that contribute to these codes are the devices used to define and then reveal or solve a mystery. What keeps us intrigued is the process in which they solve the mystery presented in the beginning of the episode, hence the hermeneutic code. Ricoeur distinguishes between two forms of hermeneutics: a hermeneutics of faith which aims to restore meaning to a text and a hermeneutics of suspicion which attempts to decode meanings that are disguised. (Josselson)
Finally, another contributor to the criticism and theory of the narration in stories was Levi-Strauss. He believed in the theory of binary oppositions, underscoring the concept of differences. From birth, we learn differences rather than relations. Males distinguish themselves by images and understanding that they are not like their mothers, rather than the fact they are like their fathers. Barthes has a sound theory in the case of narratives, but it can also be tied into Todorov’s. Although through Barthes we look at the minuscule vs. the big picture, little equilibriums can be found through binary oppositions. The idea is that binary opposition is an inherent, structurally based concept on the Western tendency to group into hierarchy. This is a conception derived from Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist whose ideas laid the foundation for many of the significant developments in linguistics in the 20th century. His work in structuralism is a tangible point of departure that moves us into the post-structural criticism that is deconstruction. Throughout the movie there are little battles between these binary oppositions that create balance to the characters and plot, and therefore, the narrative. It is in this way that characters create conflict and story. Because of the nature of military action, you will always have a mix of young and old, those who are eager to get into a fight and those wish to make it back. There is a sense of wisdom in the older characters where little things make a difference. One great example would be after the convoy, coming back from Mogadishu, refuels and rearms to get back to the fight. The leader Struecker says very little to a young man who has lost the will to continue because he has seen death around him. “It’s what you do now that makes a difference.” That is the kind of wisdom expected from leaders. They push a person to think hard about how they want to be remembered. In this case, the young man Thomas, heroically grabs his gear and jumps into one of the last Humvees to return to the fight. It is here where the little battles are won. Another great example of the binary opposite would be the difference between America and Somalia. In the movie, you have a highly trained force of soldiers who become quickly outnumbered by ill-trained guerillas. Looking beyond that, the conflict can be portrayed as a Third World country versus an international superpower.
Along with the theories, there is 1 more key point that needs to be made on narrative theories. Narrative structures are experienced differently from person to person, but there are two groups where the content allows us to make generalizations (while there still may be some anomalies): male and female genders. Producers of the content that is viewed, read, or listened to by these two distinct audiences must appreciate the differences between the genders. The feminine narrative appeals to women because it involves relationships and complex issues with characters while masculine narratives appeal to men based on action and multiple climax points. Black Hawk Down cannot be labeled as a “chick flick”, but it is feminine narrative. This can be determined by the relationships and complex emotions displayed between the soldiers to each other. The movie has many climactic moments, but it also reaches out to the audience to be understanding of the position the men have been put in to. It is how they interact that will determine their fate giving an aura of brotherhood. But, in recent years complications have arisen as how to define shows or movies. Movies can no longer be just feminine or masculine or else the audience will not be pulled in. This can be attributed to the change in social behavior and norms. We are becoming progressively equal in the male/female world. Falling back to the 1950’s at the height of streamlined sexism, creating a movie appealing to one sex or the other would have been appropriate. But today as audiences tend to be more socially adept, directors and writers must look to create not just a movie, but a complex experience. This is why narratives are beginning to have very complex, multi-episodic stories that are not only using both gender narratives, but also the blending of genres.
Black Hawk Down was a blending of fact and fiction into an action/war drama. The US/UN mission in Somalia had originally been to assist in the distribution of food and supplies to thousands of starving Somalis. Farrah Aidid was the warlord who used this aid to consolidate his power base. It was this reason that led the US to create the operation. But instead of a one-hour operation, the US soldiers walked into the middle of a Somali civil war. This movie had not only the cooperation of the US military, but also the use of weapon systems and soldiers, some of whom were involved in Somalia. The movie is unique, and historical. ‘It demonstrates the heroism that continues to this day, of those Americans who volunteer to serve their country, and to be willing to sacrifice their lives for people in countries not their ownâ€¦The movie highlights the officers and NCOs who fought their way out of hell, some who returned a second time to ensure that no one was left behind. This cost them dearly. Their families and brothers in arms today keep their memories alive by honoring them with decorations ranging from the Medal of Honor to the Purple Heart. I was privileged to know and serve beside some of them. While this movie was being filmed, cast members and crew were asked to do their best in portraying the real heroes, keeping cliches at a minimum, and honor the memory of those lost. While there are composites of participants, there are also real people who carry on the traditions of the services today, from Col. McKnight to W/O Durant and others. Though a Blackhawk went down, the Rangers today still “Lead The Way”.’ -Jim “Banzai” McClain. If it were not for philosophers who have contributed theories to understanding why we think in certain ways and experience certain pleasures, nothing could be logically explained. Everything we interpret is relative to our own experiences. Propp, Todorov, Barthes and Levi Strauss, all made narrative theory the driving factor in critical analysis of modern media.
Bruner, Jerome. Acts of meaning; 1990, Cambridge, Massachussets : Harvard University Press.
Freeman, M. Why narrative? Hermeneutics, historical understanding, and the significance of stories; Journal of Narrative and Life History; 1997 Vol. 7, p169-176, 8p.
Grünbaum, Thor. “Action between Plot and Discourse.” Semiotica 165.1-4 (2007): 295-314.
Hänninen, Vilma. “A Model of Narrative Circulation.” Narrative Inquiry 14.1 (2004): 69-85.
Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action; Fisher, Walter R.; 1987, Columbia : U of South Carolina.
Josselson, Ruthellen. “The Hermeneutics of Faith and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion.” Narrative Inquiry 14.1 (2004): 1-28.
Redick, Kip, and Lori Underwood. “Rationality and Narrative: A Relationship of Priority.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 40.4 (2007): 394-405.
“S/Z” By: Coward, Rosalind; pp. 176-81 IN: Newton, K. M. (ed.); Twentieth-Century Literary Theory: A Reader. New York, NY: St. Martin’s; 1997. xix, 306 pp.
The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Minds Hidden Complexities; Fauconnier, Gilles; Turner, Mark; 2002, New York.
Wyatt, Neal. “Exploring Nonfiction.” Library Journal 132.3 (2007): 32