By Philip French
By some way the most intriguing and thought-provoking picture I’ve seen in recent weeks is Stander, directed and co-scripted by New York-based Bronwen Hughes. She’s hitherto best known for the quirky independent production Harriet the Spy and the dully conventional Sandra Bullock comedy, Forces of Nature
Her new film, well made and fast paced, takes her into quite different territory and sticks fairly closely to the main facts of a fascinating story, a bizarre example of what Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm called social banditry.
In the late 1970s, Andre Stander (Thomas Jane), the son of a much-revered general, was the youngest captain in the South African police, serving in Johannesburg’s robbery and homicide squad. During the disturbances of 1976, he was transferred against his will to a riot squad charged with the brutal suppression of demonstrations in black townships.
During one violent outbreak, Stander killed a demonstrator and subsequently asked to be removed from this type of duty. Given a desk job, he embarked on a series of audacious bank robberies, sometimes returning to the crime scene as investigative detective.
Eventually caught in 1979, he was given a savage 34-year sentence. In jail, he met two professional criminals, Lee McCall (Dexter Fletcher) and Allan Heyl (David Patrick O’Hara), with whom he escaped in 1983. Together, they engaged in a spectacular six-month spree of armed robberies that made the Stander gang front-page news and fascinated a nation. Their end was almost willed and finally only Heyl survived. He’s still serving a long jail sentence which the new South African regime has not seen fit to commute. He was interviewed by Hughes for her film.
This is in itself an astonishing tale and Hughes has told it in a kinetic manner that properly recalls Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who were the Stander gang’s stylistic models. The movie begins and ends with ironically contrasted car chases that turn on Stander’s reckless disregard for his own safety as both cop and criminal.
There are exciting heists that combine ingenious planning with daredevil execution. The gang often hit several banks on the same day and once, on hearing a radio report that a cunning manager had concealed a large sum in a secret safe, turned their car around and sped back to get the rest of the loot. Stander, as played by the handsome Thomas Jane, is a charismatic figure, a Robin Hood of the veld.
But what ultimately engages our attention, and leaves us thinking long after the movie is over, is the mystery of Stander’s character, and his motivation in relation to his times. These are persuasively recreated, most impressively through the riot during which Stander killed an unarmed black participant, but also in his conversations with his father (the leading South African actor Marius Weyers, a George Galloway lookalike) and his troubled wife (Deborah Kara Unger), whom he married twice.
Was he driven into crime by a sense of guilt about apartheid and a political system he despised? Was he a spoilt child reacting against his privileged background? Did he rob banks because he saw the opportunity afforded by security forces being deployed on more pressing political duties? Was it incipient insanity looking for some outlet? Perhaps it was a combination of all of these.
The movie sees Stander as initially seeking punishment for perceived crimes. ‘I’m being tried for robbery but I’ve killed unarmed people,’ he tells the court when put on trial, but the latter claim is ruled inadmissible. When he breaks out of jail to go on a rampage, he tells his companions: ‘We’ll fuck with the system’; ‘You become one of them or you’re at odds with everything they stand for’; and: ‘This is supposed to be fun.’
The authorities he despises, mocks and plays games with are nonplussed. Are they to pretend he constitutes no special danger to the regime or should they name him ‘public enemy number one’ and turn him into a true hero? Blacks apparently saw him as an example of daring defiance, but in one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, Stander goes into a township shebeen to confront his victim’s father and submit to appalling physical punishment.
Stander brings to mind the case of Major Claude Eatherly, the American airforce pilot who flew the pathfinder plane over Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. He sent back the all-clear for Colonel Paul Tibbets’s Enola Gay to drop the atom bomb. A couple of years after his demobilisation, Eatherly began committing meaningless crimes (forged cheques, botched hold-ups), his declared intention being to seek punishment for his role in the deaths of nearly 70,000 civilians.
In and out of mental homes, he became, at least for Europeans, an exemplary hero/victim of our times, the subject of essays, books and poems, most famously John Wain’s ‘A Song About Major Eatherly’, which was inspired by an article in The Observer
There were several attempts to make a movie of his life and invented scenes from unfilmed screenplays fed back into the life and were allegedly believed by Eatherly himself. There was a concerted effort by the US authorities to discredit him (South African intelligence services conducted a similar campaign to diminish Stander’s reputation), culminating in the demolition job of William Bradford Huie’s book, The Hiroshima Pilot. No film was made, John Wain is dead and his poetry out of print and Eatherly has been consigned to the dustbin of history.