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Very few major films have been made about the wars in Yugoslavia, but two are certainly worth examining. In this episode we compare The Balkan Line, supported by the Russian military and set in the war in Kosovo, to Behind Enemy Lines, supported by the American military and set in the war in Bosnia. Both are unashamed propaganda, but from diametrically opposed points of view.

I have discussed the wars in Yugoslavia both on this podcast and elsewhere and I have long intended to look at Behind Enemy Lines, the Pentagon-supported production based on a real life story of a pilot shot down over enemy territory during the war in Bosnia. There are so very few movies set in these wars that a big budget action story produced with the help of the DOD was obviously going to interest me. Then I happened upon The Balkan Line, which I could tell just from looking at it was made with the help of the Russian military and, given its setting, made for a great comparison. Naturally, I’m going to be talking a lot about real events, possibly more than about the films themselves.

We will take these films in the usual order of handling the worse one first before tackling the better (or less worse) one for pudding. Or the first one is an aperitif and the second one is the salad course. Not that I drink aperitifs or eat meals with designated courses, I’m just trying to explain why we’re doing Behind Enemy Lines first.

As with all things there is a spectrum of military-supported films – some are better than others. Iron Man is a better film than Ernest Saves Christmas. A Time to Kill is better than Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. The Rocketeer is better than Man of Steel. Enemy of the State is better than Jurassic Park III. Contact is better than Terminator: Salvation. Capricorn One is better than Moonfall. Good Guys Wear Black is better than The Next Karate Kid. Though they both wear black, if we’re talking Cobra Kai.

I digress, but my point is where on this spectrum do we place Behind Enemy Lines? It’s certainly towards the lower end of the barrel, some would say the bottom of the barrel, but it depends how much of the barrel you emptied during the aperitifs. See, my elaborately mixed metaphors sometime come full circle, and this diversionary joke is certainly more entertaining than watching Behind Enemy Lines.

For anyone who doesn’t remember or who has the blessed luck not to have seen it, Behind Enemy Lines came out in 2001 and stars Owen Wilson as a pilot shot down over Bosnia. Actually filmed in Slovakia, of course, because while Hollywood liberals loved to wring their hands over the poor Bosnians and trumpet the need for NATO to bomb the shit out of someone none of them actually want to go to the country itself. It is based on the real life story of US Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady, who was shot down over enemy territory in Bosnia in June 1995. He survived for several days before Marines were able to rescue him. Scott actually sued the film-makers, and the producers of a Discovery Channel documentary about him, saying neither were made with his consent and both took liberties with the story, damaged his commercial potential because he couldn’t now sell his life rights, and so on. The case was settled in 2004.

Thus, we have to file Behind Enemy Lines in the lameass, punkass fast buck artist folder, because it’s a shit movie made by idiots, ripping off someone’s real life story without even asking them and which is full of jingoistic, even racist content. We may need to kick out the bottom of the barrel and call up Dante to decide which particular layer of hell we should confine this one to. And on the subject of filing Behind Enemy Lines, I have three separate files on the movie from the David Robb and Larry Suid archives as well as the full file from the Marine Corps History Division, which duplicates some of the David Robb material. I’ve amalgamated them into one handy PDF for ease of use.

The studios who produced Behind Enemy Lines were Silver Lion, founded by the Hool brothers Lance and Conrad, and Davis Entertainment, founded by John Davis. John is the son of industrialist Marvin Davis, who bought into 20th Century Fox in 1981 before flipping the company to Rupert Murdoch in 1984. The same year, his son founded Davis Entertainment. As part of their application to Navy Office of Information West (the entertainment liaison office) they included bios of all three men, along with their prior screen credits. Davis had previously made Dr Doolittle, The Firm, Courage Under Fire, Waterworld, Richie Rich and The Last of the Finest, among dozens of others of varying quality.

The documents over the following months show that both the Navy and the Marine Corps had extensive input during script development, with various typed summaries of scenarios and possible dialogue – even the occasional full story treatment and outlines of the major characters. There is no reference to these documents in the communications from the film-makers, they didn’t send these treatments and outlines to the military, so it seems these must have been produced internally, by the military branches and their Hollywood liaisons.

However, there was little (if any) coordination between the Navy and the Marines and the DOD, because one set of consolidated script notes from the Marines that included comments from Phil Strub, objects to various bits of the script but includes responses from the producers. Repeatedly, the DOD or Marines say something is objectionable or unrealistic or inauthentic, and the producers responded that it was ‘based on information provided by CHINFO’ or ‘this scenario was suggested by CHINFO’. CHINFO is the Navy Chief of Information, i.e. their head of Public Affairs.

So the Navy were suggesting plot points or outlining a chain of command or helping with characterisation but the DOD were seeing the results and finding them implausible or otherwise problematic. If ever you needed proof that these PR people are just liars, picking holes in things simply to assert their power and try to control how people think, this is it.

They can’t even agree on what the NATO chain of command should look like in a movie about a downed pilot being rescued. To be clear – there are no elaborate bombing campaigns, no nose-to-tail high speed manoeuvrers, nothing complicated or particular dangerous going on, it’s just that Owen Wilson has been shot down and someone needs to go pick him up before the evil Serbs get their hands on him. And yet the Navy explained the whole command structure to refer to in this limpdick movie, to which Phil Strub responded, ‘Operational chain of command and command and control is completely inauthentic.’

To take a quick diversion – this is exactly my problem with the Science and Entertainment Exchange and their claim to be encouraging more realistic, accurate or at least plausible depictions of science in movies. Scientists only agree with each other when there is funding at stake or when they want to lie to non-scientists for political reasons, make out like what they are saying is indisputable, established fact. But nothing in science should be treated as an established fact because it’s always subject to revision in the face of new evidence. In reality, more than half of all published, peer reviewed scientific data cannot be replicated, at least according to an article in Nature, the most respected English-language scientific journal in the world. The former editor of the British Medical Journal, again one of the most respected in the world, has openly said that most of what they have published is probably wrong.

And yet, according to the PR around science, including the movie and TV culture produced with the help of scientific consultants, there is no such debate. Everything is merely established as fact through proper procedures and methods and there’s no doubt and scientists are perfect and science is always right. They are the experts, so we plebs simply have to listen to them. Hence all the memes about the difference between doctors on TV – who are always determined to get to the truth about the cause of someone’s illness and won’t stop until they figure it out – and real doctors, who just label something as a ‘chronic condition’, which means they don’t have a fucking clue and have stopped trying to figure it out.

With Behind Enemy Lines we see the same thing – both the Navy and Marines (who are technically part of the Navy anyway) were reviewing the script for accuracy and realism but the DOD were complaining about the inauthenticity of the stuff the Navy put in there. If they can’t even agree on what is real, what is authentic, what is plausible, then clearly they are not and cannot be encouraging or enforcing those things in Hollywood products. There is no uniform standard they’re following.

This helps explain why they argued and negotiated over the script for a long, long time. As I say, the initial meeting and approach was in November 1998, but it wasn’t until September 2000 – nearly two years later – that Strub wrote to Executive Producer Wyck Godfrey to formally confirm approval and military assistance. So what were they arguing about for nearly two years?

How the Pentagon Rewrote Behind Enemy Lines

The DOD’s problems with Behind Enemy Lines were numerous, but at no point did they raise any questions about the casting – or categorical miscasting – of Owen Wilson as the downed pilot. And he isn’t actually a pilot, he’s a navigator, the second of the two guys in the cockpit. The pilot is executed by the same Serb militants that shoot down the plane, shortly after the pair of them bail out and parachute to the ground in Bosnia. Owen Wilson is a very strange choice because he plays opposite Gene Hackman, as Admiral Reigart, and there are several scenes with them talking on the radio while Owen meanders around the countryside going in no particular direction. He just doesn’t have the emotional pull, the gravity to pull off being the lead in a film like this.

Instead, the Pentagon, the Navy and the Marines were bothered by everything from the characterisation to the geopolitics. In essence, the storyline is that Owen Wilson is a fairly loose, free wheeling Navy officer who is looking for a way out, wants to move on after 7 years. He doesn’t understand the war in Bosnia, who or what they are fighting for, why they are there. Admiral Reigart doesn’t think much of him, so he puts him on a Christmas Day recon mission, to fly over Bosnia and take photos using cameras embedded in the underside of the plane.

While flying the mission, Owen tells the pilot to go take a look just over the border, outside of the safe zone they’re supposed to be patrolling, i.e. Behind Enemy Lines. They fly over a village where the evil Serbs are burying people they’ve massacred, and so the Serbs fire off a couple of SAMs, one of which takes down the plane. Owen spends the rest of the film trying to get to an extraction point, but also realises why the Serbs shot him down, goes back to the crash site to retrieve the optical disc containing the photos of the mass grave, and is then rescued. This leads to ugly-looking Serb guy being prosecuted for war crimes, including genocide.

As I have discussed before, forces on all sides of the Bosnian wars committed atrocities, and the Bosnian Serbs were no exception. However, from the intel reports and other sources I’ve read they actually showed remarkable restraint until NATO started bombing them, despite provocations and atrocities committed by the Bosnian Muslims and Croats. They had reason to do tit-for-tat killings of civilians or prisoners of war, but mostly avoided doing this until NATO militarily sided with the Muslims.

However, the conventional narrative in Western media is that the Serbs were the bad guys, and they were backed by Slobadan Milosevic and this was about genocide, not a civil war. Behind Enemy Lines reinforces this narrative, right in the middle of the indictments being issued by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. That was a UN body set up to investigate and prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the wars in Yugoslavia, and between 1997 and 2004 they indicted 161 individuals, mostly Serbs, including Milosevic, the first sitting head of state to be indicted for war crimes. Behind Enemy Lines came out in 2001, slap bang in the middle of this big wave of indictments, echoing and reiterating the popular media narrative that the Serbs are the bad guys, the ones mostly to blame for the wars and the acts of genocide.

While the DOD had no objection to this narrative overall, they did suggest that the French admiral who is also on board the aircraft carrier, who argues with Reigart, be civilianised, made a UN diplomat rather than an Admiral in the French Navy. They asked that the writers ‘change his dialogue to reflect UN political concerns of the time period rather than making military decisions. E.g. the diplomat line of the day was not that Serbs were the bad guys, but that there was plenty of blame to go round among all the combatants (Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats, and Bosnia Muslims).’

These specific changes weren’t made, though they did rejig the character to make it clear he was primarily concerned about the peace agreement and how this flight crew wandering into enemy territory and then getting shot down poses a problem to the peace process. So, the only peacenik is a cheese-eating surrender monkey, which is basically what the Pentagon were after, it seems. It is curious that they say, rather mockingly, that the diplomats of the time weren’t anti-Serb, as though that’s now a ridiculous suggestion that no right-thinking military man would ever contemplate. This is also inaccurate, since the diplomatic position of the US at the time was publicly neutral and pro-peace, but on the quiet they were encouraging the Muslims to make unrealistic demands, thus disabling the peace process and prolonging the fighting.

There was also a whole sub-plot where it is the French who initially go in and attempt the rescue of Owen Wilson, but the DOD didn’t understand this, or like it. There were lengthy arguments whereby the writers explained, repeatedly, that it’s because it’s taking place an area the French are responsible for, it’s their Area of Responsibility, they are part of the alliance, it’s a non-combat mission and they don’t want to give the Serbs the impression it’s an act of war. Nonetheless, this remained a problem all the way through pre-production, with notes in May 2000 still asking about this, and still meeting with explanations from the writers. Despite this, it was scrapped from the film and the only rescue effort is the one at the end, by the US Marines and no French people of any kind.

There was a lot of dialogue that got changed too – the word ‘pussy’ had to be scrapped because the Navy pointed out they do have women on board and inappropriate language is not considered acceptable. A line where a pilot says he’s rather get shot than sit around all day was also cut, along with most of a telephone conversation between Owen Wilson and his father. Lines that went missing include ‘I asked everyone to stop killing each other sooner but I guess they didn’t listen’ and ‘I watched Who Wants to be a Millionaire for three hours, we’re not heroes dad, trust me’. While Owen Wilson’s arc is a disaffected Navy officer who, by being shot down and having to live in the shit for a couple of days before being rescued, rediscovers his love of war, they toned down his cynicism and arrogance in the opening part of the film.

Some of Strub’s notes on the script are quite funny, especially when he described Rodway, one of the guys in the CIC who is tracking Owen Wilson and listening for radio messages, as ‘more a sub-human primate than the kind of Marine we’d like to see.’ He also complained about Reigart, the Admiral, who at the end of the story doesn’t wait for permission before sending the Marines in to rescue Owen Wilson, when they suddenly get a fresh fix on his position. Strub saw this as Reigart disobeying orders, but the producers responded:

WE BELIEVE THAT REIGART IS A STRONG CHARACTER. AS REVISED, USING CHINFO RECOMMENDATIONS, HIS DECISION TO ACT IS NOT DISOBEDIENCE OF ORDERS.

Again, they constructed this ending, with Reigart deciding that the exigent circumstances make it a greater priority to rescue the downed officer rather than wait for formal approval for the Search and Rescue mission, with Navy input and approval. But Strub disagreed, once again showing how these people can’t agree with each other.

The other big thing they had an issue over, which continued long into post-production, was a moment when the Admiral leaks the story of the shoot-down and the missing crewman to a journalist who is on board the aircraft carrier. The whole journalist element of the film is interesting to me, because the draft script has the French Admiral first making Gene Hackman aware of the journalist’s presence, and even handing him a photo of the man. The photo got cut (and I agree, it’s weird) and dialogue was changed to reflect ‘DOD policy on open press access’. The script had Hackman saying he doesn’t like reporters because they tend to lead to people showing off and a loss of focus, so they cut the bit about a loss of focus.

Later on, frustrated by the French Admiral’s refusal to let him send in the helicopters to search for Owen Wilson, Gene Hackman decides to leak the story and apply a little pressure, see if he can get some action in response to media traction. In the early drafts of this scene, for some reason he also leaks the name of the man still out there – Chris Burnett, the Owen Wilson character. This proved a big problem for the DOD, because you never give out the names of people who are missing, possibly dead, certainly not before you inform their family or whoever. So, that bit got changed, but then it seems the DOD went further, and demanded that the whole notion of Reigart leaking the story had to be removed.

I can’t find any documents from pre-production showing them making this demand, but emails from post-production show this descended into a bit of an argument. An email to Wyck Godfrey from the military threatened to withdraw DOD support if they did not send a written commitment not to include footage of Reigart initiating contact with the reporter. The email recounts how this had come up earlier and that the film-makers had committed to not shooting any scene showing the Admiral reaching out to the reporter himself, and instead leaking the story simply by answering the reporter’s questions.

But during the filming the film-makers rebelled, shot the scene with the Admiral straight up leaking the story, the DOD found out and lost their shit. The email notes:

As Phil stated, we are aware of the need to vary scenes, and this can be done for a variety of reasons. But there would appear to be no logical reason to shoot footage of the inappropriate behavior without at least a thought in your minds that this version may end up being in the final cut. Since the footage has been shot, it is imperative that we protect the interests of the Navy and the Department of Defense.

This is what it’s like – if you stray from the agreed-upon script then you get the DOD up your ass hassling you to make written commitments not to use certain footage. And as I say, this whole news leak element was in the script from early on and for a long time was accepted by the Hollywood liaisons, but then they changed their minds and insisted it be removed quite late on in the process. I’m guessing that’s why the film-makers said ‘fuck them, let’s just shoot it anyway’ and this led to the post-production arguments.

This was followed by the Vice President of Production for Fox writing back to Strub and the Navy Commander Robert Anderson to promise that ‘changes will be made in the final version of the film so that “Reigart” is not depicted as calling the media.’ Sure enough, the finished film shows him at his desk, smoking a cigarette and looking at the journalist’s business card, and then a scene where he’s arguing again with the French Admiral, who directly accuses him of leaking the story. But we never actually see him leak it, let alone see him initiating contact with the reporter.

One final thing before we move onto our other movie – the end of the movie sees Reigart removed from command and retiring from the Navy, Owen Wilson staying in the Navy after all, and evil Serb getting prosecuted for war crimes. The script did have additional captions implying the events portrayed were real, leading to yet another objection from Strub:

P119 to end – I think all this should go. Since the movie is entirely fictional, there shouldn’t be misleading title cards implying that it was real, especially since the events in the region are still very much in flux… This is an action-adventure picture, not a message film, and there’s way too much real controversy still around to pretend otherwise. If the filmmakers wish to end with a message, it should be a generic one about the Navy/Marine Corps team forward-deployed, etc, etc.

Proof, as though we needed it, that part of the military’s mission in Hollywood is to decontroversialise pop culture and make it more generic. No wonder Behind Enemy Lines ended up being the cinematic equivalent of having your anus bleached – mildly stimulating, but we all wish it just wasn’t necessary in the first place.

The Balkan Line (2019, or 2020, or 2021-22)

The Balkan Line was initially released in Russia in March 2019, just days prior to the 20th anniversary of the events depicted in the movie. After Disney’s deal to buy 20th Century Fox went through at around the same time, Fox having acquired some of the international distribution rights, they released it via their division focusing on the Commonwealth of Independent States, essentially the former Soviet Union countries. Since then it has been released in France, India, Germany, Taiwan, Portugal, Australia and the US, though most of these were not theatrical releases but were limited to DVD and VOD. Currently, you can watch it on Amazon Prime.

This is quite bizarre to me because it’s a Russian military propaganda film, with some Serbian government propaganda thrown in for good measure. Perhaps the need to keep acquiring content to keep driving more Prime subscribers overrides anything else. Perhaps Amazon, at this point, really don’t give a shit about politics or geopolitics.

Where did this movie come from? Stop me when this story sounds familiar. An actor, screenwriter and producer who is a member of the ruling political party dreams up an idea about his country’s role in a fairly recent war. He hires a screenwriter who turns in a 600-page love story, which is completely un-filmable. So he enlists the help of a politically-connected Army officer who was, at the time of the events being depicted, a Major in military intelligence who was involved in those events. Said officer then helps develop a new script in which there’s more military action, the military characters are the heroes, the plot is largely fictional but he lends a hand to make sure it is plausible and reliable, relative to the real events, aspects of which are still being kept secret in the government archives.

This could just as easily be a film from Britain or America, but in this case we’re talking about Russia, so let’s make some specifics clear. Gosha Kutsenko is the actor and film-maker who conceived of the project. In 2008 he joined United Russia, the ruling party in the Russian parliament and major supporters of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, the only two men to have been Russian president in this century. While Putin ran as an independent in the last two presidential elections, he is still allied with United Russia. As to whether the parliamentary elections that saw United Russia maintain their majority this last go round were anything close to legitimate, I leave for you to judge.

Faced with an unshootable epic script by Ivan Naumov, Kutsenko turned to General Yunus-bek Yevkurov, who was in the GRU at the time of the events portrayed in The Balkan Line. Yevkurov advised on the rewrite of the script, turning it into more of a conventional war drama than a romance story. They had to fictionalise a lot of it, including exactly why the Russians saw fit to seize an airbase in Kosovo in the midst of a war, but presumably the General guided them on what not to write. With a new script in hand they hired a first-time director they could push around, and got support from the Russian military and the government in Serbia. Shortly after the film came out, Putin appointed Yevkurov to Deputy Defence Minister and he also got a bump in rank in the Army. It’s not all good news – he has also been sanctioned by most of the West and their allies, which again poses the question of why is this movie on Amazon fucking Prime? And does he get any points on the back end, is Yevkurov making money from Jeff Bezos?

I don’t know, but this has to be one of the most blatantly military-sponsored films we’ve examined on this podcast, and has to be considered propaganda in much the same way as Black Hawk Down or War of the Worlds or Lone Survivor. But instead of Reel Bad Ruskies, we’re getting Reel Good Ruskies, and some Reel Good Serbians. But without the Russians and Serbs being the bad guys, who plays the bad guys? In The Balkan Line it’s NATO and the KLA, the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Let me explain. The Dayton Accords in 1995 brought to an end the first war in Bosnia, or possibly the second or third war depending on whose definition you use. That side of what was Yugoslavia was Balkanised, boundaries drawn, foreign fighters expelled, diplomatic channels established and confirmed. But Kosovo was largely left out of the agreement and was ceded to Yugoslavia, becoming an autonomous province within the Federal Republic. Sandwiched between Albania and what’s now Serbia-Montenegro, no one gave much of a fuck about Kosovo except as a smuggling and possible pipeline route.

The Bosnian mujahideen were disbanded and expelled in 1995, but they essentially took over the KLA – the Kosovo Liberation Army, a separatist movement established in the early 1990s. When you look at the flags flown by mujahideen brigades in Bosnia and the famous red and black KLA flag you’ll notice they are extremely similar. And are similar to the flag now used by the nation of Albania. The beefed-up KLA started taking over Kosovo, using the province as a transhipment point for drugs, weapons, human trafficking and so on. Towards the end of the 90s the UN and the US State Department listed them as a terrorist organisation, though the State Department kept adding them to the list then taking them off then adding them again, depending on political winds shifting.

The Yugoslavian government, led by the Serbs and Slobadan Milosevic, took on the KLA resulting a war breaking out in early 1998. Many people fled from Kosovo to Albania or to Yugoslavia, and the US government depicted this as Milosevic conducting a policy of ethnic cleansing to drive out the ethnic Albanians and make Kosovo a Serb-only province. This doesn’t make much sense since the majority of refugees were Serbs and went to Serbia, not Albanians who went to Albania. And all the while the KLA were claiming they were ethnic Albanians, which they mostly weren’t.

I am certainly not defending the war in Kosovo, merely noting how the US and other big NATO countries used it as an excuse to bomb Belgrade and take down Milosevic – something they’d wanted to do for years. Don’t forget, the first NATO bombing during the wars in Bosnia in the early 90s was to stop Bosnian Serb forces advancing and seizing a key town from the Bosnian Muslims (or Bosniaks). NATO were always anti-Serb and supported the Muslim faction and later the Croatians in their fights against Bosnian Serbs. These provocations actually met with restraint from Bosnian Serb forces – it was only after NATO started bombing them that they went apeshit and we got the massacre at Srebrenica and other similar atrocities. Incidentally, Srebrenica is mentioned in Behind Enemy Lines.

In early 1999 a diplomatic effort to reach a resolution to the Kosovo crisis came up with the Rambouillet Agreement but Yugoslavia and the Serbs in Kosovo refused to sign on. The Agreement required that Yugoslavia grant unhindered access to their territory to NATO troops, and grant those troops immunity from prosecution under Yugoslav law. This was all in the name of ‘peacekeeping’, supposedly, but would you let the world’s largest military alliance come into your country and go anywhere and do anything they wanted? So, when Milosevic and others refused to sign the Agreement, NATO immediately started bombing Yugoslavia. Kind of underlining why they didn’t trust NATO in the first fucking place.

By summer the Yugoslavs were getting sick of this and agreed to withdraw their troops from Kosovo, and allow a NATO peacekeeping force to be established in the province, in exchange for no longer having their homes blown up by high-altitude, indiscriminate bombing raids. But there was a twist – Slatina Air Base, a Yugoslavian base in Kosovo and home to the second-largest underground hangar complex in the whole of Yugoslavia. It was housed at Pristina International Airport, the only meaningful airport in Kosovo and therefore a key strategic location for the incoming NATO forces.

The airport and the base were due to be taken over by NATO on June 12th 1999 but the Russians, including our man Yevkurov, got there first. A column of the Russian Army who were part of the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia entered Serbia and headed for Pristina in Kosovo. This was before NATO forces had permission to enter Kosovo under the agreement to cease the bombing. Nonetheless, Wesley Clarke gave an order to seize the airport and base before the Russian forces got there (they were watching all this unfold via satellite). This order was ignored, because of fears it would violate the agreement with Yugoslavia, the Russian forces took the airport and there was a two week stand-off.

Wesley Clarke again gave orders to simply overwhelm the Russians and capture the base, but these orders were refused because the commanding officer on the ground wasn’t in the mood to start World War Three. The Russians started calling in reinforcements by air, the Americans (who opted out of getting involved militarily) put diplomatic pressure on neighbouring countries not to let Russia use their airspace for this purpose, and gradually things calmed down. There were negotiations over Russia’s role in the peacekeeping effort in Kosovo and the base was run jointly by Russian and NATO forces for several months after the stand-off was resolved.

It is basically this story, of the taking of the Pristina airport and the Slatina Air Base that forms the plot of The Balkan Line. It is dressed up as a more covert mission than it was in reality, and the Serbian (or Yugoslav) government are shown as being fully complicit in all this, working alongside the Russians to facilitate the operation to take the base.

The film reminds me of two others we’ve looked at – Michael Bay’s 13 Hours, about Benghazi, and The 9th Company, a Russian film about the battle for a particular hill in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war. The 9th Company was also supported by the Russian military (and their culture ministry), was endorsed by Putin and the film maker Fyodor Bondarchuk (very much the Russian Michael Bay) was invited to watch his film with the President.

All three of these movies go out of their way to demonise Muslims – in 13 Hours it’s the local Benghazi militias, in The 9th Company it’s the Afghan mujahideen and in The Balkan Line it’s the KLA. All three culminate in an Alamo-style shootout between a small band of soldiers and the Muslim hordes. In The Balkan Line the airport is taken via an unauthorised operation using disgraced former Russian soldiers, essentially special forces mercenaries. Their mission is to hold the airport and wait for the column of tanks and other armoured vehicles to show up. But the airport is being controlled by the demonic KLA, complete with racks of weapons and pallets full of packages of lovely, white drugs.

So naturally the KLA turn up, complete with a commander in a nice black leather jacket and nicely trimmed beard. They start attacking the airport, trying to re-take it from our small band of Ruskie mercenaries, who somehow fight them off long enough for the proper Russian Army to show up. This is intercut with news footage from the time, though the film’s storyline ends with the Army taking the airport, and doesn’t depict the two weeks of squabbles and negotiations and threats during the stand off. Thus, this news footage is actually from later, but it all adds to the sense of authenticity, I guess, and definitely hammers home the propaganda messages. NATO are bad, Russia are good, Serbia is also good, the KLA are pure evil.

All of which leaves us with another question – why did Russia take the base? Was there something in the underground hangars that they did not want NATO troops to find? Whether we’re talking aliens or experimental weapons or experimental weapons based on alien technology or Boris Yeltsin’s private distillery, I’m not sure. Or was this more strategic? They knew that the UN and NATO couldn’t establish their peacekeeping mission in Kosovo without using that airport, so was this a little negotiation tactic?

It is important to recognise the context of the relationship between Russia and the West, particular the US and NATO, in the 1990s. Yeltsin was elected Russia’s first President in 1991, and was something of a maniac – selling off national assets to create the first generation of oligarchs (another word for billionaire) and inviting in American capitalists to ram raid the country’s economy. He was also a dictatorial type, his war in Chechnya was bloodier than Putin’s, though neither was anything to be proud of. Incidentally, General Yevkurov was involved in both wars, long before he became a General. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the US quite liked Yeltsin, and the Clinton administration even had discussions about Russia becoming part of a new, expanded NATO alliance.

It seems this was bullshit, and Clinton’s people were lying to Yeltsin and never had any intention of letting Russia join NATO, while Clinton himself was deluded into thinking it would all somehow work out and he’d get to have his cake and eat it too. He thought he could maintain good relations with Yeltsin and dangle NATO membership while never seriously considering where this might lead. Emphasising this, in 1993, during the Russian constitutional crisis when Yeltsin declared himself the sole ruler of Russia (and possibly the universe) and ordered the military to attack Russian government buildings and arrest elected lawmakers, the Clinton administration supported Yeltsin.

However, by the end of the 90s Yeltsin was on his way out and the Russian establishment, especially the military, were getting sick of being pushed around. They’d realised that they were never going to be invited into NATO, and their experience as part of the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia was instructive. The Americans bossed them around, treated them like NATO was in charge and the Russians were just Canadians who didn’t speak English. When it came to Kosovo, Russia wanted to be part of the peacekeeping effort but without being subject to NATO commanders telling them what to do. They did propose having their own distinct region of responsibility within Kosovo but there were fears of this leading to a split country between a Serbian North, protected by Russian troops, and an Albanian South, protected by NATO troops. In the end, it was decided that Russia could conduct its own independent peacekeeping mission across the whole of Kosovo, alongside but separate from the NATO mission.

This is ultimately what the film implies, that this was about Russia asserting itself in a part of the world much closer to its borders than to America’s. The close of the film includes captions telling us that when Russia withdrew from Kosovo in 2003 this led to attacks on the Serb enclaves in the province. Then Kosovo became an independent nation in 2008, and the attacks continued. The underlying implication is that Russia has the right to intervene overseas (or overland, in this case) in order to protect allies from the evils of NATO and whichever locals might threaten those allies (the KLA, in this case).

Consider that The Balkan Line is set in South East Europe, is designed to appeal to people in that part of the world, especially Serbs and Serbians, and came out initially in 2019 and then steadily over the following two or three years. That is to say, it came out in the period leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, also in South East Europe, also a place NATO has designs on, also a place where some of the locals were killing ethnic Russians for years prior to the invasion. And that some of The Balkan Line was filmed in Crimea.

Just as we’ve looked at films and TV shows that pre-empted or came out simultaneously with real life events, are we looking at the Russian equivalent here? Is this film, at least in part, a way to sell the Russian invasion of Ukraine to people in that part of the continent? A way to say ‘we’re doing this, we are right to do this, but we have no beef with you’? A projection of militaristic soft power to soften people up for the projection of full on, hard military power?

Conclusion: The Balkan Line vs Behind Enemy Lines

I imagine you can figure out which of these two movies I preferred, or at least found less irritating and had the better soundtrack, but in case it’s not clear, I think The Balkan Line is more worth watching. It is freely available on archive.org, albeit with some questionable subtitling done by someone who doesn’t understand English, but it’s not a complicated enough story for that to matter. Just sit back, enjoy the sexy Russian sniper lady, the blatant propaganda messaging and the Ruskie synth rock and metal music.

As to which is the worse film politically, that’s a little trickier. Is a pro-NATO war film worse than an anti-NATO war film? I guess that depends on your perspective, but my perspective is that it is because whatever the Ruskies and Serbs got up to in these wars, NATO got up to a lot worse. Indeed, without Yugoslavia it’s difficult to see whether NATO would even have survived the 1990s and the post-Cold War cries for it to be disbanded. I know these days they’re on youtube pointing at Ukraine and screeching about this being why it’s so important that NATO still exists, but that’s just deluded horseshit. NATO is the primary reason the war in Ukraine happened, and is still happening.

Of course, Russia is hardly blameless, either in the Balkans or Ukraine and I do wonder at two films, both with the word ‘line’ (or ‘lines’) in the title, focusing on wars which were ultimately about NATO redrawing the map to suit itself. Was the choice of title, or at least the English title, for this Russian film in part a dig at Behind Enemy Lines, a piece of military propaganda designed as a riposte to an earlier piece of military propaganda? And has it worked? After all, no one is watching Behind Enemy Lines these days except people like me, whereas The Balkan Line is on Amazon Prime.