Frederick Wiseman – Basic Training (1971)


BASIC TRAINING follows a company of draftees and enlisted men through the nine weeks of the basic training cycle. The varieties of training techniques used by the army in converting civilians to soldiers are illustrated in scenes of drills, M-16 and bayonet use, a gas chamber, mines, night crawls, an infiltration course and the many forms of ideological training familiar to millions of men and women who have served in the armed forces.

Shot during the summer of 1970 at Fort Knox, Kentucky, Frederick Wiseman’s film Basic Training focuses on a group of men going through infantry training, showing how they are turned from civilians into soldiers. As well as being a unique portrait of the US army at work, the film is also a fascinating snapshot of a time and place at a defining moment in American history.

Recognised as one of America’s best documentary filmmakers, Wiseman began his filmmaking career in the late 1960s, where he embarked on a series of documentaries that dealt with American institutions: how they functioned, how people functioned within them and the effects this had on both the institutions and the people connected with them. Wiseman’s films followed in the tradition of direct cinema and observational documentary, which sought to chronicle real events with as little intervention from the filmmaker as possible. All of Wiseman’s early films were shot in black and white on lightweight, hand-held 16mm equipment, with none of the incidents staged for the camera. The resulting films seem to unfold naturally, allowing the people and events that are depicted to speak for themselves. The films in Wiseman’s ‘institutional series,’ beginning with Titicut Follies (1967), feature no voiceover, no direct to camera interviews, no music and no captions to orient the viewer within the film. The lack of these techniques, which usually serve to familiarise the viewer with the subject, allows the audience to form their own interpretation about the events they witness in the films.

Nevertheless, Wiseman does significantly shape the material in his films – principally during the editing process – while still presenting many sides to the situations he documents. In the case of Basic Training, Wiseman shows the army from a variety of perspectives and allows both the trainees and their instructors to have their own voice. However, it is clear that his main purpose is to show us how civilians are assimilated into army life and turned into fighting machines, and how some of these men attempt to maintain their individuality in the midst of the conformist attitudes of a military institution. The idea of an individual being subsumed by the system is at the core of Basic Training, and is introduced at the very beginning of the film. The first words we hear are numbers, as the new arrivals are allocated bunks to sleep in, followed by a sequence where the men are fitted for uniforms, their measurements read aloud. We then see a series of heads being shaved, one of the many sequences reminiscent of Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987). Like products on an assembly line, the trainees are quickly processed and indoctrinated in military combat techniques, and Wiseman, with skilful speed and economy, introduces us to the army way of life. We watch as the men are incorporated into a system that they are meant to serve unquestioningly. As Lieutenant Hoffman succinctly puts it, “The best way to go through basic training is to do what you’re told, as you’re told, and there’ll be no problems. When you start trying to fight the system, that’s when you get into trouble.” Most of the trainees seem to go along willingly with the training and do as they are ordered, while others – the rebels, the individualists or the ones who simply don’t fit in – are disciplined, punished and humiliated.

Throughout Basic Training we encounter a variety of people, many of them resembling stock characters from a Hollywood war film. There’s the tough drill sergeant who bellows orders to his troops, the jokers and outsiders who try to buck the system, and the more unfortunate trainees like Hickman, who, like Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) in Full Metal Jacket, cannot keep pace with the other trainees and is ill-suited to military life. However, the majority of trainees do fit in with the system and seem to adapt to army life very quickly. In one memorable sequence, Wiseman shows the men receiving four hours of bayonet training. They quickly progress from awkwardly thrusting their weapons to executing well-practised combat moves. The implication is clear: in a short space of time, ordinary men can be trained to kill with maximum efficiency. Wiseman also has a great eye for details, often cutting a scene off abruptly after a significant comment or action, or isolating a telling moment – a hand, a face, or a simple gesture – to make a point. Many other shots constantly reinforce the fact that these individuals are being moulded into one fighting unit. For instance, when we see a group of trainees standing side by side and shaving together in front of a row of mirrors, their reflected faces seem to blend into one image. The long scenes showing the men in training are often punctuated by shots of troops marching and singing in unison, a telephoto lens compressing the individuals into one mass. Every time we cut back to these marching troops, we are reminded that these individuals are being moulded into a group of soldiers. It is an image already familiar to us from countless films about boot camp life, summarising the army way of life and encapsulating the entire film.

Martyn Bamber

from an interview:
When Basic Training was screened here in Baltimore a few months ago, I saw it with an anthropologist who has done fieldwork in a military community. When I asked him what he thought about it, he said he liked it but didn’t find it “shocking.” I thought that was interesting, that he would feel he was being cued to be shocked. Did you see yourself as making a shocking picture?

Wiseman: No. That’s interesting, because one could argue that the thing that’s most shocking in Basic Training is the ease with which civilians can be turned into soldiers prepared to kill in the service of the state. It’s a form of education, and the Army is very good at offering that form of education. And most people are willing participants.

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