A decade ago, an Icelandic volcano was spewing ash all over Europe, David Cameron was elected Prime Minister and a spate of terrorist attacks claimed the lives of 1,375 people globally. In the same month (May 2010) as explosions went off in Turkey, Russia and Greece, Chris Morris’ suicide bomber comedy Four Lions hit UK cinemas (it would enjoy a staggered release around the world as the year went on). Then, families of the victims of the 7/7 London bombings called for the film to be boycotted, the Daily Mail had a field day, and the movie seemed to get more tasteless by the year as major terror incidents became more frequent. Now that newspaper headlines read grimmer than ever for different reasons, you might think it self-flagellatory to revisit a film that turned real life tragedy into comedy. But you’d be wrong.
In fact, Four Lions only seems to have gotten better with age. Not just one of the funniest British comedies ever made, it’s also up there with the most relevant responses to what’s going on in the world. Morris’ jihadi spin on This Is Spinal Tap may be best remembered for its quotes (“Rubber Dinghy Rapids bro!”), but its real staying power comes from its courage – daring to make a film about division by shooting from the other side. As anyone who follows Trump on Twitter knows, the best way of condemning a dangerous idiot (be they a corrupt cop or gun-toting racist) is by letting them hang themselves with their own stupidity – but an even better way is to show them being blown up in a field by tripping over a sheep.
Talking to journalists when the film came out in May 2010, Morris spoke about writing the script after watching hours of outtakes from real martyrdom videos in court – some made by the same men who flew a plane into the Twin Towers.
“There’s a bit where they’re arguing about who’s cooler, Bin Laden or Johnny Depp,” he told Time Out. “You hear ridiculous things like, ‘My wife’s really pissed off with you ’cos she made you these sandwiches and you didn’t eat them and then you ate a load of chocolate spread. Hey, wouldn’t it be brilliant if we pulled an airliner out of the sky?’”
Watching real suicide bombers joke around on camera, Morris realised that the same guys who were topping ‘Most Wanted’ lists around the world were actually just dumb kids who barely knew what they were doing. “These aren’t cold, reptilian killers,” he told The Guardian. “They’re dicking about with a hat; they’re pissing themselves laughing. What’s interesting is to look at this footage and think, ‘But they still did it’. They acted like this, and then they still went and did it.”
Using this angle as way into the wider conversation, Morris wrote Omar (Riz Ahmed), Waj (Kayvan Novak), Barry (Nigel Lindsay), Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) and Hassan (Arsher Ali) as a bunch of idiots – blowing up crows to test their explosives, shaking their heads to confuse cameras and planning to bomb the London Marathon to get back at their GCSE Media Studies teacher.
Crucially though, none of them were ever painted as a bad guy. On paper, Four Lions is a film about a gang of fundamentalists who load up a van full of nail bombs and blow themselves up in the middle of London. They’re clearly all awful murderers, but by telling the story from their side Morris turned his comedy into something much more powerful.
“In Omar’s mind, he’s the good guy,” says Ahmed, talking during the film’s 10th anniversary watch party on Instagram last month. “That’s the thing that might have confused some people, but he doesn’t see what he’s doing as a bad thing”.
In fact, the friendship between Omar and Waj is the heart of the whole film – with no sentiment saved for any of their victims (“I may ask you to blow yourself up bro but I would never ask you to piss in your own mouth…”). There are no crises of conscious here, and no attempt to show things from anyone else’s perspective – just four dumbasses driving down the M1 with a van full of explosives, singing along to ‘Dancing In The Moonlight’. While real terrorists were busy using horror as a weapon, Morris disarmed them with comedy.
10 years on from Four Lions and the divisions in the world seem to have deepened, but the film still stands up as a textbook example of how to try and make sense of them. We don’t need to be told that suicide bombers (or racist cops and dangerous politicians) are bad people – but we do sometimes need to be reminded that they’re all stupid enough to actually believe they’re doing the right thing.
Still just as funny and fresh today as it was back then, Four Lions will continue to be relevant as long as the world is full of idiots trying to mess it up.