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A world of child soldiers and cowboys: 'Beasts of No Nation's' Extended Family Tree

July 28, 2016


And AK-47s that they shooting into heaven
Like they're trying to kill The Jetsons
                                                  --Lupe Fiasco, "Little Weapon"

Cary Joji Fukunaga’s film Beasts of No Nation (2015) began its journey as a novel by Uzodinma Iweala. Published in 2006, the film’s hypotext appeared on bookshelves a year earlier than Ishmael Beah’s bestselling memoir A Long Way Gone, which, although categorized as nonfiction, also began as a novel in a creative writing workshop. Around that same time, in 2008, Emmanuel Jal released his album Warchild, which received critical acclaim from publications like Rolling Stone. In other words, a general discourse about boy soldiers, colonialism in a post-colonial world, the relationships between violence and natural resources arose in the middle of the twenty-first century’s first decade, and this discourse could be equally packaged as either an entertainment commodity or a curriculum for high schoolers and neighborhood book clubs.


Perhaps the most mainstream examples of this exchange between one part of the world’s pain and another’s need to lionize the act of secondhand witnessing are the 2006 film Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCapprio and Djimon Hounsou, and the television show Lost, which introduced Mr. Eko during the course of its second season. (The character came of age as a boy soldier in an unnamed African village, and the season ran on ABC during the calendar years of 2005 and 2006.) Eventually, his character was killed by the show’s mysterious smoke monster, which, like any generic fad in entertainment or literature, could appear out of nowhere, slay its audience, and disappear back into the larger world.

While a certain level of exoticism surely exists in the appeal of these boy soldier narratives to an American audience, these stories also tend to arrive in somewhat familiar packaging. For example, in Beah’s A Long Way Gone the allusions are to Hollywood films like Rambo, American hip hop, and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Some of this is due to how stories about similar events develop into something like a genre, complete with its own tropes and conventions. On the other hand, this effect may also be the residue of colonial power structures and their globalized byproducts writhing deep in the shape of these narratives.

Perhaps how humans experience and heal from violent trauma is universal. Maybe both the violence and the healing are learned. The story of the event, too, might be nothing more than rehearsed echo. Who knows? Then again, maybe that echo is not by accident. The possibility exists that the oppressed voices in these stories mold themselves to Western forms and constellations as a way of suggesting this violence did not begin here in our hearts, but in the minds of those who came—and still come—to our lands and villages with visions of colonialism dancing in their heads. In other words, the similarities are as much an effort to be polemical as they are to be both familiar and understood.


I can still remember the first time I watched Mark Rydell’s The Cowboys (1972). I was in my family’s living room. I was young. And what happens at the film’s end was not supposed to happen.

The scene is dark. Trees circle the outskirts of a low burning campfire. Men, boys, and horses gather too. John Wayne’s Wil Andersen and Bruce Dern’s Long Hair wrestle in the sloppy macho way that men in Westerns do. They lack skill. Everything is brute force and rugged effort. Andersen, the old bull that he is, bests Long Hair. According to Western mythos, the Andersens of the world will always best the Long Hairs when it comes to gritty effort and the good fight. They will do so on honor and experience. The thing is, however, that Long Hair can’t accept this fact, so he reaches for a gun and shoots Andersen in the back several times as the hero attempts to walk away.

For a kid like me, who grew up on a steady dose of Star Wars, Spielberg, and Disney this development in the film felt treacherous, if not altogether wrong. Andersen was not sacrificing himself a la Obi Won Kenobi. He was playing by a different set of rules, and his stubborn refusal to acknowledge evil’s unrelenting violence cost him his life.

As his body lays spread eagle and bleeding in the dimly lit shadows, a group of boys gather round him. The fire burns to the left and in the distant background. The boys kneel. No one speaks. The camera withdraws slowly. Eventually, though, these boys will arise and avenge the old man. They will kill Long Hair.



As a kid their bloody vengeance felt shocking, but the John Williams score in the background remained inspiring. And it’s the children scheming against a ban of outlaws accompanied by that score that makes this revisionist Western an odd precursor to so much of Stephen Spielberg’s efforts in the 1980s and 90s, from The Goonies (1985), which he wrote, through Hook (1992). Yet, while those later films feature children and adolescents at war against crooks and pirates, the violence is all plywood to the crotch and slipping on marbles. When Rufio duels Captain James T. Hook, his own death allows him to die without having truly lost his innocence. He is not a killer, and, in the end, an adult Pan doesn’t even slay the film’s corruption. Instead, he listens to his daughter, who pleads, “He’s just a mean old man without a mommy,” and turns his back on the old pirate, who eventually meets his maker via crocodile.

The Cowboys never really hides the violence that is always brewing just beneath its surface. Derne’s personification of barbarism is well-communicated in the early going, but the boys’ youth—their willingness to do a job well and therefore to be good and loyal citizens—often eclipses these concerns. Perhaps that is the film’s intent, or maybe the effect is simply wishful thinking on the part of the audience. After all, we want our children in life and on the screen to remain relatively innocent. Moreover, the role of children in Westerns is to observe violence, but never to shoot. Think specifically of Joey in Shane (1953), or count up the innumerable kids play fighting on dirt streets and in front of general stores. How many of them actually bleed or spill blood? Heck, even in the indiscriminate violence of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) the children are largely observers to the gunplay, ants, and scorpions. But not in The Cowboys.

In this film, the same kids who introduced themselves one by one, like members of the Mickey Mouse Club, as they got bucked from a horse take up arms. Imagine if The Mighty Ducks (1992) had featured the murder of Coach Bombay (Emilio Estevez) at the hands of the Hawks and their coach and then concluded with the surviving Ducks beating the Hawks and their coach to death with hockey sticks. Whatever that is that’s The Cowboys, which, with its chalkboard lessons on how to drive cattle, walks a fine line between the generational dynamics in The Bad News Bears (1976) and the anarchic violence in Lord of the Flies.

And this Western, where the guns are locked up until the climactic finish, is not that far removed from Beasts of No Nation.



The film begins with the whimsical escapades of Agu (Abraham Attah) and his friends. They carry around a hollow television set. They call it “Imagination TV,” and they act out different genres and tropes for their audience, usually a less than interested adult soldier who asks them to move along. They act out soap operas and Kung Fu scenes. They even attempt to make the performance a 3-D one by sticking their heads beyond the place where the television’s screen should be. The playfulness in these scenes and the childhood sense of wonder are reminiscent of the dance group Ishmael Beah and his friends belong to in A Long Way Gone. Imagination TV is also what’s at stake in a world resting on a violent threshold.

When the war arrives in their village, families are torn, the idea of play evaporates, and reality’s blood seeps into the soil. This destruction of home and community makes boys like Agu ripe for manipulation. Just like with Ishmael or Emmanuel, his fear and anger allow a man like the Commandant (Idris Elba) to make him a soldier. In a film like The Bad News Bears or The Mighty Ducks, this lack of stability would make Agu and the other orphaned boys excellent baseball or hockey players. In Hook, they would be lost boys. Moreover, they would all be indoctrinated into flying v’s, the value of the team, and learn how to be men of some unnatural mold. None of these films deny the malleability of youth; in fact, they all exploit it.

And the same can be said for The Cowboys.

When the idea of using boys on a cattle drive is first broached, Andersen doesn’t like it. Despite having set out as a cowhand at an early age in his own life, he believes the boys in the one room schoolhouse are much too young and inexperienced. Yet they persist. They are eager to prove themselves as men, and, seeing as how both his sons reside under tombstones, he longs to be seen as a father figure, even if he’s not fully aware of such a need. What’s interesting, however, is that some of the boys already have fathers and come from all-American families. The significance of their privileged backgrounds is in direct opposition to the circumstances of the children in boy soldier narratives. 

In sports movies, the Bad News Bears and Mighty Ducks are also made up of boys from traditional family backgrounds and those who are not. In this way, the teams function as microcosms of the middle and working classes rising up to win the trophies formerly belonging to snobby rich kids. In Hook, Peter Pan acts as both hero and father to the lost boys, and, in turn, is both a father and hero to his own children. In Beasts of No Nation, though, the family is obliterated, and the unit of boy soldiers contains only orphans. In other words, the ingredients are much the same as these genre films, but the consequences are much more dire. 

And, whereas the lives of boy soldiers are determined by a voided system's violence, these young cinematic cowboys and athletes are gifted with the ability to change their lives' courses merely by believing and participating in a particular system's values.



The Cowboys begins as a film about a down and out cattle rancher, but ends as a film about boys who have worked and killed like men. Beasts of No Nation begins as a film about boys, but is hi-jacked by Elba’s character, the Commandant. Eventually the film returns to being about the boys and their recovery, but the moments where it gravitates towards the might, power, and surprising vulnerability of the Commandant are the most startling. In these moments, the film manages to promote the slightest of sympathies for one of cinema’s most despicable creatures.

The Commandant and his squadron of boy soldiers have just accomplished their biggest military goal. They await, in the big city, a meeting with Supreme Commander Dada Goodblood (Jude Akuwudike). They wait. They wait some more. The meeting does not come. The Commandant’s importance in front of his boys begins to wilt as other individuals bypass him in line. In the vicinity of the waiting area is a mural depicting the nation’s past: the slave trade. Many of the individuals taken before the Commandant to see the Supreme Commander are foreign investors and businessmen. When he finally does meet with Goodblood, his boss informs him that the squadron will no longer be his. He will receive a new position, but clearly he is being demoted. Also of note is how much of a pawn he is within the political games of his nation and the world at large. He is a big man, but not much bigger than the boys he leads.

At this moment, one begins to understand, which is different than forgiving or approving, how a man like the Commandant could commit such despicable acts. He is, in a way similar to Andersen, a strong man completely dependent on the work of others. Moreover, he is also a small man. In The Cowboys, wide western landscape renders the physique of John Wayne’s character small. Yet, in medium and close shots he looms large. The same can be said of Elbis’ Commandant. He appears large next to the boys, but is, in truth a small man.

One last similarity between Andersen and the Commandant is how they are both victims and profiteers of economic systems. The reason no grown men are around for Andersen to hire is because they have all left the cattle ranches for the gold fields. In kind, the reason for the war and turmoil in Beasts of No Nation is the desire to exploit the nation’s natural resources, including the nation’s younger generations. These two men are essentially both grappling to either keep or to earn a seat at a larger table.

Of course, the Commandant is also a lot like Long Hair. Where Andersen’s wholesome opinions about a good day’s work place the boys in danger (one boy is trampled to death by the cowherd), men like Long Hair and the Commandant are without a code to live by. They are blood thirsty. They are coyotes. They are the ultimate danger, even if they are not the only danger.   


In the later portions of Beasts of No Nation, the Commandant revolts against the Supreme Commander’s plan. He devises an assassination plot against his would be successor, and he flees into the wild battlefields with the boys loyal to him more than the cause. In one sense, he is like Brutus. In another, he is less honorable. He is more like the Colonel Kurtz belonging to Conrad and Coppola. Later, when the boys look to abandon his leadership, they will accuse him of “madness,” and the cinematography within the blood red soil of his camp will signal the surreal representations of war to be found in Apocalypse Now (1979) and Full Metal Jacket (1987).

The heart of The Cowboys never resides in so dark a place. The boys worship and revere Wayne’s Andersen. He is akin to Henry Fonda’s title role in the 1955 film Mister Roberts or Tom Hanks’ role in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998). The Cowboys may have more in common with The Green Berets (1968) than Apocalypse Now, but that’s scary too.

The Cowboys is a film born of the New Hollywood, but the violent turn in its nature is not appalling, but in danger of being rejoiced. This is similar to what occurs at the end of The Revenant (2015), where vengeance is justice and does not seem to taint those the camera anoints as heroes. In the atmosphere of the New Hollywood, which is the atmosphere that gave cinema the viewpoints of Coppola and Spielberg and Kubrick, the horror is always that the young become like the old. In The Cowboys, though, this is no horror at all, but the film’s proud purpose. Yet the film isn’t quite that obtuse either.

Maybe the movie grins too much at the young boys taking up guns to avenge a Western patriarch. But the film also is smart in how the boys cannot locate Andersen’s grave. Instead, they leave a marker in proximity to his resting place. This moment places his death within a succession of Western violence. Earlier in the film, one boy asks Andersen about a horse’s skeleton, and Andersen remarks that the carcass is a ruined monument to the battle of Little Big Horn. These wholesome boys came from good stock, and that good stock built homes on land that once belonged to the Sioux. That land did not come without cost. The story of the West cannot be told without blood. Maybe the John Williams soundtrack revels too much in this, but the idea is true nonetheless.

A film that links the Western’s violence with the jungles of Vietnam is The Big Lebowski (1998), with its crime noir maze and tumbleweed rolling into the Pacific. The film allows its audience to imagine at absurd lengths what if the Vietnam War was a natural progression of Cortès’ apocalyptic march to the sea and the burnings of ancient Mexico. And so, too, is Beasts of No Nation a part of that history.
Most boy soldier narratives allow a Western audience to look in at the violence, removed and in awe. The healing at the end of such narratives often also suggests that the worst is over. Ishmael Beah’s novel Radiance of Tomorrow (2014) begins with a village reduced to bone dust and continues to observe how even after a war the gears of commerce continue to grind. It looks for hope, but seems to acknowledge that hope is not certain, that war and violence could strike again.



In 1959, Francois Truffaut filmed The 400 Blows. This film and others of Truffaut’s helped to shape a generation of filmmakers within and without Europe. The ending of the film, where Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Lèaud) escapes a correctional facility, whose purpose is to fix him via isolation and reflective interviews, and runs towards the ocean, became the template for almost all the New Hollywood endings. Essentially, Brando, McQueen, Newman, everyone was enacting some rendition of Doinel’s flight to the ocean. Interestingly enough, France had a hand in Vietnam up until 1959 and a hand in a variety of African nations up until the 1980. How far would Doinel have had to run in order to escape French values, the Enlightenment, etc.?    

The end of Beasts of No Nation takes place at a camp for boy soldiers. Agu and his peers sleep and eat next to the ocean. They frolic in its waves. They make plans for their futures by a campfire. The camp aims to restore their lost youth. They go through interviews, much like Doinel in The 400 Blows, where they must work towards an understanding of self and community, of what was and what could be. The idea is to return these boys to a place where Imagination TV can be up and running again. The problem is that even Imagination TV requires a box, as do most stories, and trapped in that box is a world in need of new stories.


What I aim to say is that the plot thrusting those boys onto the trail and manhood in The Cowboys also transformed Agu into a soldier and victim in Beasts of No Nation, and that’s a most difficult thing to wrap one’s head—and heart— around. After all, that plot lives and breathes and kills outside the screen and off the page. 

Doinel and Agu meet at the fence, or the ocean, perhaps somewhere in space. Fin.

Bryan Harvey tweets @LawnChairBoys

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