Fire in Babylon
Don’t be fooled by the double-whammy of this film. It’s a documentary. And it’s about cricket.
It’s also one of the most watchable films in recent years: intriguing, compelling, revisionist and eye-opening.
Viv Richards is ostensibly the leading man in this portrait of the West Indies cricket team of the Seventies and Eighties. And it is Richards who leads the reminiscences of a band of men who forever changed the world of modern cricket after a humiliating defeat at the hands of their opponents.
It was Richards and Clive Lloyd who embarked upon a war that, in essence, involved battle on the pitch. The Australians started it when pacemen like Dennis Lillee bowled hard and fast at the Windies’ batsmen.
The Windies retaliated with an aggressive form of the game that saw them targeting batsmen and bowling for the man, not the bat. Suddenly the once genteel gentleman’s sport was transformed into a quasi gladiatorial spectacle. Richards and his teammates were denounced as “terrorists” and “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”.
Cricket was turned into endurance. It was about winning through pain, intimidation and oppression. There was a brutal poetry to it all – something Richards, Lloyd and an array of other famous players including Michael Holding, 6ft 8ins Joel Garner and Colin Croft revel in re-living.
There is a swashbuckling aspect to Fire in Babylon that underlines this terrific documentary and which makes it more than just a chronicle of a crucial period in modern cricket. Director Stevan Riley opts to focus his attention exclusively on the West Indies team. Whilst their opponents are featured in archive footage, not a single English, Australian or Pakistani player gets to comment.
Riley also highlights the extraordinary fusion of culture and sport that defined the Caribbean in the mid-‘70s. Bunny Wailer, ex-bandmate of Bob Marley, is just one commentator whose memories and subjective approach to the period puts the story in context.
For this is a very subjective film. It draws together the survivors of that legendary team and elicits from them an unapologetic nostalgia trip down a contentious and controversial Memory Lane. None of the foreign players – from Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson to Ian Botham – are given voice in the multitude of talking heads but there is enough archive footage of those far-off days to satisfy diehard fans.