Spiritual pilgrimages have long been seen as a way to heal your body; your mind; your soul. The road itself is time to reflect; to assess what needs work; to make a change. The destination is often incidental or purely symbolic – the literal end of the road for whatever soul searching you’ve had to do along the way.
Director Brian Morrison brings this archaic notion of a pilgrimage into the twenty-first century, with very real trauma being explored in the aftermath of the Iraq War. He follows Jon Hancock, a member of the Second Battalion, Fourth Marines (knowns as the 2/4s or The Magnificent Bastards) as he walks 5,800 miles from Maryland to Camp Pendleton in honour of those lost and those who struggle to survive.
Bastards’ Road opens with John, lit by campfire light, recalling how it feels to shoot or be shot at. He talks about the sounds; the sights; the smells. The way you’re expected to simply clean up the blood and carry on. Having been deployed to Iraq in 2004, Jon’s unit saw some of the highest casualty rates of the war – with one in four being killed or seriously injured. That experience has cloaked the survivors in trauma, isolation, alcoholism and depression.
Whilst not particularly statistics heavy, the film does make it clear that the US army veterans are at a greater risk of suicide – 50% higher than non-veterans, to be precise – and that between 2008 and 2017, 60,000 veterans took their own lives.
The talking heads with Jon’s marine brotherhood reveal an array of lasting psychological impact. Many of the veterans express disgust at simply being offered pills in order to cope, instead of real and meaningful support such as therapy or assistance finding work. How can you adjust from dehumanising a perceived enemy (in order to kill or interrogate them) or survive a bomb blast and be expected to come home and carry on as if nothing has happened? When you wake up screaming every night and drink all day, how can you maintain a family life? How do you respond when someone asks you how many people you have killed? The experiences of war are etched all over their faces.
These intimate confessionals are neatly contrasted with sweeping shots of “the open road”; dirt tracks and highways; mountains and rivers; forests and fields. The scenery – albeit hard to decipher where exactly on the map it is – is breathtaking. Even more striking are the moments where Jon walks alongside roaring traffic – a visual representation of life carrying on whilst he is seemingly separated from reality.
There are also – in spite of the deeply emotional revelations – moments of sheer joy along the way. Watching Jon, a hulking, straggly haired man with a beard bop along to Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off is oddly sweet and uplifting. And, although he is on this walk for his own recovery, you can see that each person or family he visits is touched by him, whether that is montages of marine buddies drinking and laughing together or a close up of the tight embrace of a widow or a bereaved mother.
This network, this support, is really all these men have – since there is no official support being offered. Memories, ghosts – good and bad – flood the entire narrative here. By the time you have heard all of their stories, watching Jon and a small cluster of his marine brothers walk the final steps into Camp Pendleton is incredibly overwhelming. This is not just about the physical journey for any of them.
Whatever your perspective on the morality of the Iraq War – or, indeed, the armed forces in general – there is no denying the raw, real trauma on display here. These are men who willingly put themselves in harm’s way and feel like they have received nothing in return. They are simply left to self-medicate; self-heal. You do wonder what may lie ahead for many of them after the post-pilgrimage glow has waned.
Morrison crafts the documentary very well – the balance of the global and the personal, the torment and the joy.
Ultimately, he seems to be striving to “re-humanise” the 2/4s, giving them opportunities to smile and reminisce at the bond they share; encouraging tears and grief as a sign of strength, not weakness. The narrative here is that these men aren’t simply numbers on a dog tag or names on a memorial, and that not enough is being done to support, motivate, heal and encourage as they adjust to civilian life.
Bastards’ Road releases across all TVOD/Digital Platforms & DVD throughout North America beginning on May 11th, 2021