Review: Commando – On The Front Line

Commandos in the mud

In the UK: Thursdays, 9pm, ITV1

Bit of a yin-yang choice for me here: it was either this or Gossip Girl. I went for this.

Now, time was, ITV used to be able to do a documentary. Think World in Action. Think Survival. They were cracking.

Then they pretty much stopped doing them. Good ones, that is.

Commando: On the Front Line represents a true return to form and production values. Watching it, you’d think it was still the 80s, bar a switch to video from film. And that’s a good thing.

Commando follows 50 recruits to the Royal Marines over their 32 week training period before they head off to Aghanistan. Starting from the train on which they arrive, we’ll follow them as they learn all manner of things, from the obvious, such as how to kill someone with your thumb, through to the less obvious, such as how to iron, shave and shower yourself. Fittingly for its matter of factness, it casually indulges in close-up full frontal male nudity when it does this, which you’d have thought would have helped with the ratings (it hasn’t).

Watching it, you realise a few things:

  1. There are no stupid camera angles, no trick photography. It’s all very dispassionate
  2. Despite the influences of Hunter S Thompson, Nick Broomfield, Michael Moore et al, the director is pretty much intent on watching the action, not creating it. Thank. God.*
  3. The marines are really very remarkable

The third point’s worth dwelling on. Compared to certain military groups that could be mentioned (and the vision of hardness portrayed in programmes like Dogface), the marines are practical, self-effacing, informal, humorous guys. They’re hard. They know they’re hard. They don’t need to brag about it. And they certainly don’t need to shout about it. There can’t be many trained killers whose four “commando qualities” include “cheerfulness in adversity”. Maybe Spetsnaz, I guess, but they’re a bit nutty.

Similarly, the recruits, who come from places as far afield as St Vincent and Sunderland, are all bright and brave, without the machismo you might have expected of them. You have to feel proud, knowing they’re going to be representing your country overseas – and probably already are.

The programme takes it time. It doesn’t rush. Nothing’s crammed in. It’s all naturally paced to give us the time to appreciate the nuances of life in the marines, their training and the sheer toughness of the men involved. Thoroughly recommended. Assuming you’re not watching someone learn who their great-grandfather was over on BBC1.

* Things change later on, apparently. “Embedded within the troop, Terrill [the director] undergoes the same rigorous regime as the rookies – from learning ambush techniques and carrying back-breaking loads in blistering heat, to pushing body and mind during gruelling tests. Then, after winning his own Green Beret, Terrill follows the successful few onto the front line in the Helmand region of Afghanistan and right into the teeth of battle.” Should be interesting.