Film Review: FIRE IN BABYLON from Built For Speed

If ever a sporting team deserved to have a film made about it, it’s the West Indies cricket team of the 1970’s and 80’s. They were exciting, charismatic world beaters who dramatically altered the face of cricket.  With infectious passion, the documentary Fire in Babylon recounts the West Indies’ ascendancy from an unsuccessful team derided as happy go lucky calypso cricketers to one of the most dominant teams of any sport in history.

Drenched in the music of Bob Marley and images of volatile human rights battles, the film doesn’t just document the results of cricket series but places the West Indies ascendancy in the context of racial politics, liberation and flourishing African culture in the Caribbean.

The film contains interviews with many players in that team: Michael holding, Andy Roberts, Colin Croft, Viv Richards, Derryck Murray and of course Clive Lloyd. There are also contributions from West Indian academics and Rasta luminaries like Bunny Wailer.  For them the catalyst of the team’s success was the brutal thrashing they endured at the hands of the Aussies on the 1975/76 tour.  After being destroyed by the fury of Lillee and Thommo they decided they needed a galvanizing force to unite a team composed of different island nations.  Clive Lloyd provided that disciplined leadership as he moulded the brutal pace quartet of Roberts, Holding, Garner and Daniel.  With the addition of batsmen like the imperious Viv Richards they embarked on an unstoppable quest for success.

There’s a swathe of fascinating material in this documentary as we learn that a tongue lashing from Kerry Packer during World Series Cricket and some demeaning comments from Tony Grieg also contributed to the team’s killer attitude.  There’s also some uncomfortable moments for fast bowler Colin croft a he recalls his involvement in the 1986 rebel tour to South Africa.

While this is a superb and engrossing documentary I had a few small qualms. The West Indies players appear reluctant to admit that they were beaten fair and square by the Aussies in 75/76 instead suggesting Lillee and Thommo’s bouncer attack was not in the spirit of the game even though they subsequently adopted the same tactics.   Also, the film suggests that when the West Indies destroyed Australia in 1979 in the first post-Packer series this was a shock even though they had already thumped Australia with the same team during World Series Cricket.

The celebration of West Indies victories also verges on vengeful triumphalism although they were clearly on a mission to right past wrongs.  The claims about the political significance of the team also seem a bit overcooked at times and tend to give the doco an overly serious tone.  Fortunately, director Stevan Riley knows when to lighten the mood as he incorporates some very amusing footage of Bunny Wailer philosophising about Viv Richards and of Thommo indulging his hobby of pig hunting.

A few bumps in the road only briefly distract from the fact that this is a fascinating document of a brilliant sporting team.


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