History in Films: Black Hawk Down

Ridley Scott’s 2001 Black Hawk Down was a commercial success and often compared with Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) for gritty cinematography with lens filters and the variation of film speeds to create the sharp, cold gruesome reality of combat.

Black Hawk Down was a tribute film. 19 Special Forces soldiers died on October 3, 1993 when in the volatile city of Mogadishu, Somalia,  “Insertion to Extraction” was scheduled to take 60 minutes, but when two Black Hawk helicopters were shot by Mohamed Aidid’s militia and crashed in the city center, the operation changed from arresting two leaders for crimes against humanity to rescuing 123 Delta Force, Army Rangers, and 160th Airborne soldiers.

Honestly, how they made the film on the special features side of the DVD was more interesting than the film itself. To prepare for the role, the cast went to Fort Benning for a week of boot camp and hang out with Delta Force, who are the crème de la crème while Army Rangers, although special but not as special as Delta Force. I was unaware of the hierarchy.


Ridley Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer took great care authenticating their historical film. They obtained permission from the U.S. military to use Black Hawk helicopters, artillery, and active Special Forces soldiers eliminating the need for stunt men. Filmed in Morocco, it was a perfect location for imitating Mogadishu. However, Scott hired Hans Zimmer to create the score, which was okay at best, and added the Celtic singer from Gladiator in the final scene which I thought was a cheap shot.

While the film was impressively shot and won two academy awards for Best Film Editing and Best Sound, if the debate question was whether Black Hawk Down was better than Saving Private Ryan, the easy winner was Spielberg’s war film. Why?

Was it in part because U.K. actors adopted the accent of twangy backwoods Americans? No, I’m not saying British actors can’t play Americans. Eric Bana’s accent was better than Jason Isaacs over-the-top try or the poor attempt by Ewan McGregor and maybe Orlando Bloom had he more than a few lines to say before dying early in the film. I suppose the biggest disappointment was that these fine actors weren’t allowed to develop camaraderie or establish their characters in a meaningful way that would allow the audience to care for them thus step into the movie with them.

I’ve heard defenders say the purpose of the film was not to deliver complex characters, the purpose was to show a situation and not create a narrative. Yes, fine, but there has to be more than explosions and dangling body parts and one-liners. Ken Nolan’s (actor Matt Nolan is his brother) screenplay was the weak link of the film. Lines by great actors like Sam Shepherd as General William Garrison seemed trivial.


The only exception was Tom Sizemore’s character Lt Col. Danny McKnight. He was the American actor who acted like Scotsman Ray Winstone. At least I was allowed to like him. Josh Hartnett did a good job but fifty other actors could have delivered the same lines. Do I recommend the film? Oh, I suppose. It’s a nice tribute to real men who sacrificed their lives for their fellow soldier and their country. That’s always an attractive message, isn’t it? I couldn’t help but feel it was slightly more than a video game.

20 thoughts on “History in Films: Black Hawk Down

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    1. Yes, I don’t like romanticized sappy war stories. But, with this one, there needed more exchange before they went out to have us recognize them in their uniforms, feel for their situation, and get all dewey eyed when a tragedy happened. The making of the film was so interesting in comparison.


  1. I watched it last year and it was definitely a thrilling movie, for sure. However, the character-development just really felt weak to me. It’s like Scott had such a huge ensemble at his arsenal, that he didn’t really know who was going to be our lead protagonist, aside from Hartnett’s character. Good review.


    1. Hi Dan, thanks for commenting. I learned that he had 65 speaking parts and with an ensemble, the trick is to pick a few, not 10 characters trying to share air time. That is, if I were the screen writer, that’s what I would have done. It’s just so easy to lose the character when they compete with one another. It’s not helpful when they all wear the uniforms and look alike with the dirt and blood on their faces. It’s so intense and fast paced, you forget the uniqueness of them all. If they are an entity, I respect that. When I think of an ensemble movie like ‘The Magnificent Seven’ you have time to get to know them. Also, I thought it was a big mistake to drop the ball on the pilot, Michael Durant, who was held hostage. Here was a great chance to create a cool character and they ignored him. He was saved 11 days later.


  2. I haven’t warmed to Black Hawk Down…it is very one-sided, maybe that is to be expected but I’m not sure the depiction of the Somalis is a fair representation.


    1. It’s interesting that you said that. They were bound (because of getting the Black Hawks from the military) to portray the Delta Force and Rangers in a positive way. To commerate the fallen. That’s all fine. But, like you say,
      I’ve been watching ‘Dirty Wars’ which is the bipolar version of what the special forces are up to these days. I try not to be a black and white thinker. I think wars and sides are all gray. Thanks for the comments.


      1. That’s interesting to note and something I’ll consider if I see the film again. I do believe the film is technically very well made but I’m just a little uncomfortable about it.

        That said, I quite happily sing the praises of Spielberg’s opening to Saving Private Ryan which, similarly, presents a very clear line between “hero” and “villain”.


  3. Mmm favourite WW2 films? The Great Escape, of course, A Bridge too Far, Saving Private Ryan, The Dambusters, 633 Squadron, For Whom the Bell Tolls [ah, no that was the Spanish Civil War], and Flags of our Fathers. We are also have both boxsets to Band of Brothers and The Pacific, both excellent, both re-watched regularly. SD


  4. I wonder whether another factor in Blackhawk Down’s relative unpopularity is due to the fact that it is almost contemporary and an element in an international community intervention that ended badly.


  5. Hey Cindy! I so want to see this but my friend Ted warned me that I might not be able to handle the gruesome violence. Boy I LOVE the cast here tho, esp Bana and McGregor!


  6. Hi, Cindy:

    As the book’s authors says, “There is a reason that there are no time shares in Mogadishu”.

    The Rangers were given a tough mission. Made tougher by a motivated enemy on their home turf.
    And a U.S. State Department that would not allow available and ready C-130 Spectre gunships and armor to be brought to bear. For “fear of upsetting the locals”, according to then Undersecretary of State, Morton Halperin.

    That said, the film is one of the best executions of a special mission. Aware of being outnumbered. While adapting to constantly changing situations. Also notable for a complete lack of a ‘Private Hudson Moment’ (“Game over!”) from any of the troops on the ground. And brought to life with Tom Sizemore’s Col. McKnight’s “Are you kidding me?!” look when given the opportunity to sit out the early morning reinforced extraction force.


    1. I admire the film for the accuracy of the deployment as well as the heroism displayed by the troops–it had an “old fashioned” WWII feel to it–all for one and all for one. The film had flaws for me the most noteable was the drop of the character Michael Durant, who was held hostage and rescued 11 days later, but was only mentioned as an after thought in the film. As far as an execution of a military objective, the film was well done. As far as portraying any depth of characters and the black and white deliverance of a historical event, I rated it less. I’m about ready to write a review of the documentary “Dirty Wars” and can’t wait for your opinion on that. Thanks, Kevin, as always, for dropping by with your elucidation.


  7. I agree with everything you’ve written here, Cindy. Especially this, “I couldn’t help but feel it was slightly more than a video game.”

    I remember seeing this about a year after its release and being wildly disappointed. I could not and still cannot understand why so many people love it as much as they do.


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