Set in 1901, at the center of the Anglo-Boer War that spanned between 1899-1902, Blood and Glory (originally titled Modder En Bloed), written and directed by Sean Else (Platteland; ‘n Man Soos My Pa) tells a captivating and intriguing fictional story of sorrow and revenge in the infamous St. Helena Island that also was home for Napoleon's exile and death.
At the focus on the narration is Willem Morkel (Stian Bam), a Boer warrior who, after losing his wife and son at the hands of the British soldiers, he is captured and incarcerated with other Boer prisoners-of-war, in one of the concentrations camps of the island St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean, where they are placed under lock and key as traitors to the Queen for attempting to escape and fight the British military forces in South Africa.
Here at Stonewood Camp, the Boer prisoners-of-war are subjected to the harshness and cruelty of the tyrannical Colonel Swannell (Grant Swanby), a man whose actions are fueled by an intimate hatred for the Afrikaner, and who’s in charge of the English concentration camp and his henchmen, Sargent Skirving and Corporal Evans (Nick Cornwall, Josh Myers).
Pretty much like any other story about the horrendous genocide of the Jews during the Second World War, the movie picks up on some of the key elements that always make it in this sub-genre: relationships in the camp between the prisoners and Colonel Swannell are constantly at their lowest and the movie doesn’t fail in providing the audience with the right depiction of trauma-like events such as torture and murders, with blood at the hands of the British empire.
After a very (unnecessary) long first act, the story finally takes a different spin when protagonist Willem Markel challenges Swannell’s team to a game of rugby in return for the life of a prisoner who previously attempted to escape the camp (Edwin van der Walt).
Rugby, however, is a sport that the Boers’ have no knowledge of. The odds are against them as the British army team has numerous of occasion to show off its strength on the pitch.
That is the moment where there’s a notable shift in tone throughout the movie. If the first half provides an insightful and interesting focus on the difficulties of the historical reality that the Anglo-Boer war and its concentration camps were, the last half turns the movie in a much lighter narration of how the Boers assemble a team of untrained rugby players which will be facing the unbeaten British counterpart, with only a month to prepare the game.
It’s in that point, when the game is set, that the movie turns itself almost in a sports-comedy type of movie like the much better Moneyball (2011), Invictus (2009) and so on, where a team of underdogs proves that odds can be overthrown and brings a light of hope to the story.
The second half of Blood and Glory, although totally different in tone and maybe a scope, gives the movie a new rhythm that might actually work better. It keeps the audience more closely engaged in the unravelling of the story and uses all the cliches of the typical sportive story.
Whether it may give a sense of laziness, the movie actually relies on solid and proved working methods of telling a simple story. What doesn’t actually work is the sense that two totally different movies have been made in the telling of the same story.
The sense of unbalance that Blood and Glory leaves is notable and, though the movie doesn’t deserve a total fail for that at all, I can imagine it being picked up by Netflix as part of a series of indie-cultural movie that anyone can comfortably watch from home, not necessarily in a single shot.
Worth a mention is the original title of the movie, the Afrikaans Modder En Bloed which actually translate with English “Mud And Blood". The subtle title change is a remark of the fact that the movie doesn’t aim at a global audience, rather it does speak at the English South African audience.
It’s also a testament to the contrasting perspective of this period of history in which the British empire, according to the movie, is depicted not less atrociously that Hitler would be portrayed in a WW2 story.
The idea of combining rugby with a historical event as dramatic as the Anglo-Boer war was an interesting pitch but, history remains a sensitive topic and the totally different change in tone between the first half and the second hasn’t helped the movie to take itself seriously enough in the perspective of a much larger audience. This all clarifies a lack of interest in understanding how the events really went and I believe the film would have been more successful if only the writing would have been more focused in writing more compelling and memorable characters, instead of fleshing out patriotic and national take on history.