By Richard Ades
Jonathan Hancock can’t stop replaying a horrifying moment from his service in the Iraq War: After firing a grenade toward an enemy position, the Marine watches helplessly as a child runs onto the scene just in time to be blown up.
This slow-motion memory is one of many that torment Hancock as he undertakes a 5,800-mile journey in the documentary Bastards’ Road. Also on his mind are the many comrades he lost during the war, and the many more who were lost after their tours of duty due to PTSD and suicide.
It’s partly to prevent more losses—and partly to deal with his own internal demons—that Hancock decides to set off the morning of Sept. 11, 2015. Strapping on a backpack adorned with a Marine banner, he leaves his home in Maryland and begins walking. His plan is to take a roundabout cross-country route that reunites him with fellow comrades who survived the war, as well as the families of those who didn’t.
Directed and edited by Brian Morrison, the documentary takes its title from the nickname of Hancock’s Marine unit: “The Magnificent Bastards.” Visually, the film is a beautiful travelogue that includes some of America’s most striking vistas. Psychologically, it’s a revealing dissection of the lasting trauma that war can create in those who fight it.
At times, the two sides of the film’s personality don’t quite gel, especially when soothing ballads are heard during Hancock’s wanderings. They seem out of place because we know they don’t reflect his state of mind.
More convincing are the comments Hancock and others make about the changes war can create in a human being’s psyche: Battle takes away one’s belief that everyone is basically OK. It forces one to adopt behavior that would be inappropriate in ordinary life—and that must be abandoned if one survives and returns to that life. And it forces one to face the deaths of those who don’t survive. “We didn’t know how to deal with that,” Hancock says.
A recurrent theme of Bastards’ Road is the importance of veterans’ admitting when they need help. Due to macho pride—or to shame over their inability to get on with their lives as some of their comrades seem to have done—many don’t seek that help. Instead, they turn to drugs, alcohol or worse. One result, the film states, is that the suicide rate among veterans is 50 percent higher than it is among the general population.
To counteract this disturbing trend, Hancock meets with as many former comrades as he can during his journey. Together, they commiserate over what they went through in Iraq and encourage each other to get counseling if they need it.
Coincidentally, just two days after watching Bastards’ Road, I caught a 60 Minutes report on the “Ritchie Boys,” a secret U.S. military unit formed during World War II. The unit included many German Jews who had fled to America and were eager to use their knowledge and language skills to help defeat the Nazis. What struck me the most about the interviewed veterans was the pride these elderly men took in their long-ago war efforts.
That set me to thinking. Though PTSD obviously has been around since warfare was invented, it must be at least a little easier to recover from serving in a just and universally supported cause like WWII than it is to recover from serving in an ill-conceived and widely condemned conflict like the Iraq War. But that’s a question that Bastards’ Road never takes up.
Ignoring the politics of the situation, it instead focuses on the psychological damage the war did to those who fought it. In the process, it offers new insights to those who weren’t there and, hopefully, a bit of healing to those who were.
Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)
Bastards’ Road is available via VOD/digital platforms and DVD beginning May 11.