Last Night’s TV – The Fallen: Legacy of Iraq

This documentary, shown on BBC4 last night was one of the most moving I’ve seen in a long time. Directed by Bafta award winning Morgan Matthews, we saw that his simplistic approach to making the film made it the tragic but pride filled programme it is. The interviews were conducted against a stark and wholly black backdrop which allowed for the focus to be solely on the words being spoken rather than anything going on behind those speaking.

It might have been tempting for a director to have perhaps images of battle going on in the background or emotive music but instead, Matthews let the bereaved take front and centre, alone and unadorned, and that minimalistic approach parlayed into a film far more touching than it could have been with the addition of those things.

The Basra wall - a memorial to the 179 British soldiers who died in Iraq

The Basra wall - a memorial to the 179 British soldiers who died in Iraq

The Fallen: Legacy of Iraq, featured frank interviews with the surviving family members of the 179 servicemen and women who died; parents, siblings and, arguably saddest of all, children whose fathers or other family members didn’t come home from the war. We heard too from soldiers and one commanding officer who’d experienced battle in Iraq. The grief was palpable, the sadness and for some, anger, still very raw as many fought back tears to talk about the person they’d lost and how they were coping with that loss.

One thing they all had in common was the fact that through their own experiences and talking about them on camera, they – without overtly trying to – painted a picture so moving and tragic, I wept for them and for their fallen throughout.

The film opened with two little girl cousins, Kameron and Courtney Ellis – Courtney is pictured at the beginning of this piece – discussing the death of Private Lee Ellis who was Kameron’s uncle and Courtney’s dad. They talked about how they pictured what it was like in Iraq and Courtney listed her main thoughts about it; “There’s broken bones, dead bodies, nasty people and… snails!”

These lovely little girls made contributions throughout the film and towards the end, we heard how Lee’s family have “invisible” parties on his birthday where they keep a chair for him vacant.

As with all the testimony and recounting of events and opinions of those interviewed, it was relayed without affectation or drama; it was simply the horribly sad legacy of losing a loved one to a war that still divides opinion. Many of those featured said they didn’t blame Tony Blair or George Bush for going to war or for the fact that their loved one didn’t come back, but just as many did and do.

Matthews also very cleverly interspersed the testimony of family members and colleagues of some of those who’d died and we heard how an individuals death affected each of them. One such death was that of Corporal Rodney Wilson who was shot while he was rescuing his friend and fallen comrade Lance Corporal John ‘Frenchie’ Le Galloudec. Frenchie had been shot in the back while on duty in Basra and as a result, he suffered severe spinal injuries. It was while Rodney was dragging him to safety that he himself was fatally wounded.

Rodney Wilson

Rodney Wilson

We heard from Frenchie how he’d suffered a great deal of survivor guilt – and still does to some degree – and we also heard from Rodney’s father, Richard, about how his son’s death has affected him. Also, Rodney’s commanding officer was interviewed and the weight of his burden of grief about the men he’d been in charge of and who’d died was a very heavy one which showed in his eyes and was evident in what he had to say.

There were also interviews with the mothers of some of the men who hadn’t come home. One said, “On the day that he left for the last trip, I begged him not to go. I went down on the floor and put my arms round his legs and I pleaded with him not to go. And he lifted me up by the elbows and he said, ‘I have to go, it’s what I do’”

Another said of her son, “Before he left, he arranged his funeral with his sisters because he said it was that scary out there, he didn’t think he’d be back. 21 years old, planning your funeral…”

There were many such statements and sad recollections, and towards the end of the film, Matthews went with Rodney Wilson’s father as he visited his son’s grave. He struggled to contain the tears and we heard Richard say, “He died heroically… but he died. And I wish he hadn’t died.”

He talked about how he’d already had 29 more years of life than Rodney got so in describing his grief, he explained how he – and his feeling about his son’s death – was an “unintended” side-effect of Rodney’s death; “It was him who lost, not me. I’m still alive.”

Matthews also talked to family members of men who’d apparently committed suicide while on active duty in Iraq though one family disputes that claim and are awaiting the results of an enquiry into his death. There were also interviews with the families of men who’d died in accidents over there, such as road crashes, and although these deaths were not as a direct result of battle per se, they were still deaths that may not have occurred were these men not in Iraq and in the middle of a war.

Many of those interviewed expressed their wish that those who’d died out there not be forgotten and by making films such as this, Matthews and others who make similar documentaries are helping with that cause, and I suspect that’s precisely why the majority of those featured agreed to be in the film. And rightly so.

The debt owing for the price of someone’s life is an onerous one, and one which we all owe in part. The fight for freedom in a place the majority of us will never go is one that is – and probably will always be – a contentious issue but by watching this film, we can at least let the families who lost precious members know that they aren’t forgotten.

You can see this film on BBC’s iPlayer here.

Lynn is an editor and writer here at Unreality TV and is trained psychotherapist and the author of two books. She's addicted to soaps, period drama and reality TV shows such as X Factor, I'm A Celeb and Big Brother.