At the end of Tears of the Sun (2003), there is a quote that is falsely attributed to Edmund Burke. It reads, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” As it turns out, the late eighteenth century English philosopher was loosely taking from one of his country’s predecessors, John Stuart Mill. Regardless, it is a good notion. If you consider yourself a good person, you have a responsibility to live up to that ideal. Anything less, and what are you, really? Worse yet, by not living out such a commitment, you could be letting something truly awful occur. It does not necessarily have to be in the realm of geo-politics as in today’s film. It could be something more personal, but no less detrimental. Faith will tell you this is a sin, but committing one does not have to be the end of your journey towards God. One can see some of these themes played out in the movie.
Set in a Nigeria undergoing Civil War, Tears of the Sun begins with news footage explaining how the Islamic north has risen up against the Christian Ibos in the south who had formerly run the government. In the resulting chaos, the United States Navy has been dispatched to retrieve American personnel from within the country. Aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, Captain Bill Rhodes (Tom Skerritt) assigns his Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) Team, led by Lieutenant A. K. Waters (Bruce Willis) to retrieve a foreign-born American doctor, Lena Fiore Kendricks (Monica Bellucci), two nuns, Sisters Grace (Fionnula Flanagan) and Siobhan (Cornelia Hayes O’Herlihy), and a priest, Father Gianni (Pierrino Mascarino). When they parachute into the country and arrive at the Catholic mission where they all are, none of them seem ready or willing to leave. With a little forceful persuasion by citing orders, and the warning that rebels are on their way, Lieutenant Waters convinces Dr. Kendricks to go. The others decide to stay, which the soldiers allow as Dr. Kendricks is their primary mission. However, one of the deals they make to get her to come along is to agree to escort as many of the indigenous inhabitants of the mission who can walk to come with them. This is not part of the plan, but Lieutenant Waters sees no way around it. After trekking to the location where helicopters are set to meet them and take them back to the USS Harry S. Truman, Lieutenant Waters’ true intentions are revealed when he has his men hold back the others while they load Dr. Kendricks onto the chopper and leave them in the jungle. What convinces Lieutenant Waters to turn around is when they fly over the mission on the way back and see it decimated, dead bodies strewn around the grounds. Thus, they go back for the ones they left behind, using the helicopters to take anyone who might slow them down to nearby Cameroon, and decide to go there on foot. Along the way, they come across a village being attacked by rebels, and Lieutenant Waters and his men get an up-close view of the ethnic cleansing going on in the country. Anyone among the SEALs who had previously been dubious of assisting these people as doing so is not exactly part of their orders is now committed to helping. Unfortunately, their escape is compromised when they discover that the rebels are tracking their progress and moving closer and faster despite their location supposedly being unknown. There is a spy in their ranks among the locals, and the reason he had been recruited is because, as Lieutenant Waters finds out, the son of Nigeria’s former president is with them, Arthur Azuka (Sammi Rotibi). When this news is relayed to Captain Rhodes, he advises cutting losses and taking Dr. Kendricks, the original reason for them being there, alone to the Cameroon border. Lieutenant Waters refuses. With the rebels now within attack range, he sends the locals ahead while he and his men, along with a few of the others who had picked up weapons along the way, attempt to hold back the assault. In the process, all but four of the SEALs are killed. Yet, Dr. Kendricks and Arthur, along with some others, are able to make it safely into Cameroon. A grateful group of Nigerian Christians thank a severely wounded Lieutenant Waters and Dr. Kendricks as they board the helicopter to go home.
Tears of the Sun is, in some ways, a straight forward, military-style action film. In others, it is a gruesome look, though a fictional account, of some of the atrocities that have been going on in Africa for far too long. The things that Lieutenant Waters and his men witness changes them from robotic soldiers wishing to stick to their orders to people who give a crap, though Lieutenant Waters uses more colorful language in describing this transformation. This speaks to the quote I described at the beginning. For Faith purposes, though, I am going to talk about a different moment that I did not mention when covering the plot. I mean, the film does deal with a Catholic mission at one point. After Sister Siobhan makes the decision to stay behind at the mission, we see her in one more scene. Just before the rebels arrive, she is confessing to Father Gianni. During this, she worries whether or not she is being a good Catholic, to which he says that only God knows whether or not that is true. In the opening paragraph, I discussed how it is tantamount to sin for good people to do nothing in the face of evil. I stand by that statement. However, we often do not know what to do against certain forms of evil in the world. The film tackles a sticky subject in the African atrocities it displays. Its solution seems to be armed intervention. Though many soldiers have invoked God’s name through the centuries, and one of those the SEALs brought from the mission tells them that God will not forget their actions, war is not the best route. Still, they act in accordance with the skills they have, not willing to sit idly by as others are sent to their certain deaths. I believe one of the reasons we find doing the right thing so difficult is because we imagine the outcomes before they happen. For Lieutenant Waters, helping the Nigerians might mean sacrificing their lives, and that is what occurs for many of them. The moments we face on a daily basis usually do not involve such high stakes, but they are always worth it. For, as that woman says, God will remember what you do.
Tears of the Sun is a difficult movie to watch. It is violent, and worst of all are the grotesque acts in the village that Lieutenant Waters and their men encounter. The rebels are not just murdering the people there for being Christians. In one of the huts, a woman is having her breasts cut off as her infant lays dying nearby. Needless to say, this is not family material. Still, it is a good representation of people making difficult decisions in the face of terrible odds.