Fire in Babylon (2011)
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Critic Reviews for Fire in Babylon
It all adds up to an entertaining 88 minutes, despite the film's ramshackle construction and its once-over-lightly approach to political, cultural and athletic history.
Riley shrewdly maintains focus on how the players co-opted the merciless tactics of their invective-hurling adversaries for their own, and the region's, self-actualization.
So much fun that you don't really have to understand much about the nuances of cricketing to get the point.
A sparkling - if perhaps somewhat nostalgic - documentary about the transformation of the West Indies "calypso" style of cricket in the 1970s, resulting in a team that dominated the game around the world
Like all great documentaries, Fire in Babylon transcends its immediate subject matter to be a film with universal appeal.
Audience Reviews for Fire in Babylon
More than any other form of documentary, sports films are often guilty of preaching to the converted. Through a combination of eccentric jargon, cliquey culture, off-putting aggression and economy with the truth, the majority of factual films about sport have no way in for the casual viewer. Fire in Babylon is an exception to this general rule, being a ramshackle but entertaining introduction to the West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s.
The first success of Fire in Babylon is that it explains the appeal of cricket for West Indians, in a way which draws non-fans slowly but surely into the culture surrounding the game. Early on Michael Holding talks about cricket as the only activity which unites this small group of very different countries. He evokes scenes of young boys playing cricket on Caribbean beaches from the minute school ends until the sun goes down, painting an enticing if overly romantic picture of a sport too often associated with boring middle-aged Englishmen.
But this is not a teary-eyed, rose-tinted documentary, extolling the spirit of cricket like characters from P. G. Wodehouse. Holding's comments about the beauty of cricket are immediately contrasted with the harsh political realities in the West Indies and the wider world. Holding and his counterparts were playing at a time when many Caribbean states were ruled by brutal dictators, not to mention the continued existence of apartheid in South Africa and the race-related violence in British cities.
The film establishes a clear affinity between the West Indies' position as sporting underdogs and the accompanying racial struggle for independence and equality. It explores the persistence of imperialistic attitudes in culture, so that even after formal political independence, people from the Caribbean were still regarded as racially inferior. Where English players were revered as gentlemen, and Australians feared as long as they bowled quickly, West Indians were called "calypso cricketers", clowns who would entertain but always lose. They were the cricketing equivalent of The Black and White Minstrel Show, existing for the snooty pleasure of white men while bringing shame on their own culture.
Nowhere does this prejudice come more to the fore than with Tony Greig's awful faux pas in the lead-up to the 1976 tour of England. Facing questions about the West Indies following their 5-1 win against Australia the year before, the England captain remarked: "If they're down, they grovel, and I intend with the help of [Brian Close] and a few others to make them grovel." The association of 'grovel' with the slave trade, the persistence of apartheid and the fact that Greig was a white South African turned a simple test series into a battle between historical masters and slaves, with the latter coming out firmly on top.
Both as a political force for uniting black people and a sporting force in its own right, the West Indies challenged the imperial yoke by giving it a taste of its own medicine. The teams they faced were resoundingly beaten because the Windies were not expected to bowl so fast and so ruthlessly to what were considered the best sides in the world. As when Australia won the inaugural Ashes series in 1882, the West Indies shook cricket at its foundations, upsetting the natural order and asking big questions about the running of the game.
Fire in Babylon credits the West Indies with helping to modernise the game, particularly in their involvement in World Series Cricket. This private three-way tournament, created by Aussie entrepreneur Kerry Packer, recruited cricketers from all over the world to play for big prize money with extensive sponsorship and media coverage. As well as introducing coloured kits and improved protection for batsmen, World Series turned cricket from a sport of "pot-bellied amateurs" into something which could be a full-time profession with proper training and an emphasis on fitness. The series, and the West Indies' approach within it, cut through all the old school, elitist customs that threatened to keep the game stuck in wartime, doing away with such pitiful traditions as a bowler applauding a batsman after being hit for six.
From Stevan Riley's abundance of talking heads, a series of fascinating and entertaining characters emerge. Andy Roberts comes across as a man of immense passion, who is quick to defend their playing style from accusations of disrepute or unnecessary aggression. He talks about needing to not show weakness in front of the opposition, choosing to "take my aggression out on five-and-a-half ounces" rather than give in to pointless violence.
Other characters within the side are equally gripping. Colin Croft comes across an ebullient, gleeful man who loved to represent his country and take revenge on big-headed batsmen. Watching Michael Holding play is beautiful and his dedication to the sport comes through in everything he says. Whenever South Africa is mentioned, it is as though a dark cloak has been drawn over proceedings, and he is quick to criticise players like Croft who signed up to lucrative rebel tours, where they were treated as "honorary whites"(!). Best of all is the enigmatic Viv Richards, who talks dolorously of staring down Dennis Lillee and treating his bat like a sword.
Fire in Babylon doesn't shy away from the pain involved in cricket, containing any number of wince-inducing moments. This was an age where cricket was played without proper protection in the way of arm and thigh pads; most players, Viv Richards included, faced down some of the world's fastest bowlers without a helmet. Riley includes a number of choice morsels, including Andy Roberts breaking David Hookes' jaw, David Lloyd copping one in the knackers from Jeff Thomson, and Michael Holding's lethal bouncers against Brian Close in 1976. Sadly we don't get to enjoy his extraordinary over against Geoffrey Boycott on the same tour.
This leads to on to a major problem with Fire in Babylon, namely the lack of playing footage. While sourcing archive material for documentaries can be expensive, there must be more archive footage available, and a lot of it is old enough to be in the public domain. It's all well and good having loads of still photographs of the ball in flight, with little clips potted here and there, but when you have someone as graceful and threatening as Michael Holding, you want to see him in full motion, not being constantly interrupted by newspaper cuttings. The shortcomings of this film points to the greatness of Senna, a film which was not only mopre thoroughly researched but better stitched together.
Fire in Babylon is also guilty of overegging its political pudding. While it does make very good points about racial attitudes and challenging stereotypes through dignity and humour, it is said so often that it becomes didactic. Sometimes it can feel like we are being lectured, with the same points being repeated so much that the film threatens to tip over into Malcolm X territory. The presence of Bunny Wailer, of Bob Marley & The Wailers, becomes especially tiresome: we become extremely annoyed with him even as we're agreeing with everything he says.
The final huge problem is that the film has too many voiceovers or narrators. Having a lot of talking heads is fine, but the director has to step in and marshal them, either to construct a direct narrative or to present them in such a way that the audience can create their own. Riley falls simultaneously into two completely different traps: it's too inconsistent and jumpy to be narratively compelling, but it's also too broad and schematic to be believable. In the end he just about gets away with it, but the shortcomings remain in plain sight.
Fire in Babylon is a flawed but important document of a sporting era whose repercussions are still being felt in contemporary cricket. Stevan Riley has better-structured, more comprehensive documentaries in him, and the problems with the film become all too obvious as the action moves forward. But this is still a pretty decent first stab at an important subject matter which will bring in the casual viewer. In cricketing terms, it's a solid half-century, and while its best shots are hampered by poor footwork, all signs point to a better second innings.
The (Indian) kids of the 70s are the luckiest bunch. We've seen, been and done so much; but nothing comes close to having closely followed the best West Indian team ever. To our generation, Fire in Babylon feels so special, it can't be put down in words. May be a Thank you to Stevan Riley will do for now.
Now on Netflix.
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