Barely four years after the official end of the war in Bosnia, the BBC aired the two-part drama Warriors (1999), a fictionalised account of a British battalion sent to Bosnia from ’92-’93 (the height of the war there) under the auspices of UNPROFOR, the UN peacekeeping force. Written by Leigh Jackson and directed by Peter Kosminsky, the miniseries was immediately acclaimed: Warriors, The Times considered, was ‘stunning – gut-wrenching, soul-searing, heart-rending, thought-provoking, sensitive, powerful, deeply disturbing and dripping authenticity from every shot’.
At the core of this story about UNPROFOR mission in Bosnia are the experiences, horrors and frustrations of British soldiers witnessing barbaric atrocities but being denied, by UN rules of engagement, the authority to intervene or prevent them. The drama explores the soldiers’ response to the UN non-combat remit – a mandate some of the soldiers find unconscionable and almost impossible to observe. In this sense the very title – a reference to the white-painted Warrior armoured vehicles used for manouvres – is profoundly ironic: in terms of fighting, the Battalion is utterly emasculated.
The plot, like many war films, has a three-part structure: first we meet the soldiers on leave and see them in their home-settings; then we follow them as they travel to Bosnia and go on operation, witnessing how their ‘neutrality’ is tested by local relationships, personal grief and the atrocities they witness. Finally we observe the aftermath and the soldiers’ psychological displacement, having completed their mission, at returning to civilian life back home.
The film includes many illustrious British actors all of whom have had flourishing careers since – leads being taken, among others, by Ioan Gruffudd, Matthew Macfadyen, and Damian Lewis. The series’ director and writer, Kosminsky and Jackson respectively , are equally acclaimed: Kosminsky most recently directed the TV serialisation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall (2015), also starring Damian Lewis. As for Jackson, who died prematurely from cancer in 2003, Warriors is perhaps his finest testament: nothing better demonstrated the humanity and sensitivity of his writing.
Jackson and Kosminsky’s docu-drama is outstanding on so many levels, but two points are particularly of note. First, Warriors was underpinned by meticulous research: interviews with over 90 soldiers and officers about their six-month spell in Bosnia, the transcripts forming the basis of Jackson’s script. Meanwhile, both the writer and director were guests of the British Army out in Central Bosnia, conducting their own research as they went. This gives the 175-minute drama a powerful sense of authenticity – during a panel discussion at the BBC in 2010, Kosminsky recalled how BBC journalists, he was informed, had demanded to know why they’d endangered their lives reporting from Bosnia when Jackson and Kosminsky had, in dramatic form, done the job so well. Second, the mini-series gives without doubt a more nuanced picture of the conflict than many Hollywood portrayals have managed, avoiding some of the misrepresentations and simplications of the conflict that widely characterised media responses at the time, and popular accounts of Bosnia thereafter.
According to Kosminsky, a number of officers interviewed by them were struck by how recognisably ‘westernised’ the people of Bosnia were – a factor which made their brutal treatment all the more devastating for British soldiers who’d formed relationships with them. Warriors is particularly strong on this: we see the Bosnian-Muslim characters of Almira and Naser Zec (Branka Katic and Predrag Bjelac, respectively) becoming friends with Lt. John Feeley (Ioan Gruffudd), giving us a bridge between British and Bosnian culture. Jackson’s subtle script shows how little understanding there intially was of the local people: Feeley automatically assumes that as Muslims they don’t drink, accordingly taking – when they invite him to dinner – not the customary bottle of wine but a rather comical bunch of bananas. Almira graciously accepts them, but we see Feeley’s dawning sense of error with the realisation that not only do they drink, but their education and cultural awareness are streets ahead of his.
Other scenes too are based closely on the interviews Kosminsky and Jackson carried out – including one particularly harrowing episode in which Private Alan James – Matthew Macfadyen giving a visceral and utterly convincing performance – is mockingly challenged by a Croatian soldier to find one living man in a truck of dead bodies. It’s the near-dead Naser Zec that he manages to retrieve, and James’s subsequent humiliation of the Croat – a scene of palpable hatred – provides a rare moment of emotional release. The moral centre of the series – he acts and reacts as we would wish to, though seems naïvely and incongruously decent in this succession of grey areas – Private James is also shown to us tragically trying to rescue a Bosnian-Muslim boy from the carnage at Konjević Polje, being thwarted in the attempt not only by the Serbs but also the rules of his own side. It’s such moments that explain the dismal aftermath of the tour of duty, as the ‘warriors’ come home.
Warriors garnered nearly every international award going, the Prix Italia and Bafta for best drama serial among them. It’s easy to see why: with its cool-headedness, sophistication and quiet sensitivity, it’s a high-point in BBC production – important not just as a portrayal of the Bosnian War, but of war itself. Haunting and hard-hitting, as good as 90s British drama got, its release on BBC DVD is long overdue.
Peter Kosminsky’s Warriors (1999) is available as a Dutch import from Amazon, priced £9.98.