Living dangerously

What inspires a war correspondent? More than the sense of history or heroism, TV reporters are seduc

''We were called thrill-freaks, death-wishers, wound-seekers, war-lovers, hero-worshippers, closet queens, dope addicts, low-grade alcoholics, ghouls, communists, seditionists, more nasty things than I can remember."

That was Michael Herr, describing Vietnam war correspondents in his 1978 book, Dispatches. Clearly there is something peculiar about war correspondents; but I don't think Herr puts his finger on a pejorative that really hits the mark. There is no doubt that you have to be both brave and a little bit mad to go to Baghdad and wait for the hard rain to fall. What is really peculiar about these people is their desire to get themselves noticed, to be near the centre of what is going on, to matter in an existential sense and, perhaps, to prove that they are made of the right stuff.

In short, what seems to me to drive war correspondents is a yearning for celebrity and, pace Michael Herr, I cannot think of a nastier thing to say than that. Even if they manage to convince themselves that it's all about covering "the stories that need to be told", there is no reason why the rest of us should be under any delusion that it is really a matter of being, in Michael Nicholson's phrase, "high-profile" and of having a "pretty prominent place in the running order".

Contrast the reporting of the Iraq war that you see on al-Jazeera, which tends not to show any news reporters at all - sometimes not even any words or music, just pictures of bomb damage and casualties - with the kind of personality-led news we get on British TV. Seen often enough, these people become the news. John Simpson, who famously liberated Kabul last year, found himself on the front page of the Daily Telegraph for the scratch he received in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. Why? Because covering numerous wars has made Simpson, and others like him, a celebrity. With more than 500 reporters covering the war in Iraq, and only so much news to go around, perhaps it is inevitable that the warcos should begin to find themselves and their own narrow squeaks more newsworthy. News editors probably calculate that watching someone we feel we know cowering in a ditch makes better television than watching some poor bedraggled Iraqi do the same. In this respect at least, modern TV news is no different from a Hollywood movie in one important respect: it needs a star. Like any film star, the stars of TV news love the attention, the glamour.

"Anyone," explains Channel 4's Alex Thomson, "who doesn't say that being a war correspondent is a glamorous way of making a living is bullshitting you, because it is . . ." But you need more than a lucky white suit and a bit of shrapnel in your Kevlar to have glamour.

From whence does this sense of glamour accrue? Do our war celebs seem glamorous because we - but more likely, they - remember the journalism of Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, or the TV reports of Julian Pettifer and James Cameron? Perhaps. The War Correspondent, a book by Greg McLaughlin, offers many plausible motivations for why people do the job; but none of the explanations offered by the journalists themselves seems honest, for nowhere is there any mention of the many movies about or featuring war correspondents. I suspect today's warcos take themselves too seriously to admit that they're doing the job because, 20 years ago, they saw Mel Gibson in The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) or Julian Sands pretending to be Jon Swain in The Killing Fields (1984). Movies like this make war journalism look a lot more exciting than writing about the National Health Service for the Guardian.

Possibly the earliest movie about warcos is Somewhere I'll Find You (1942), in which Clark Gable plays a newspaperman sent to cover the war in Indo-China. When the action moves to Bataan and his brother is killed, Gable writes a passionate tribute to all those who have laid down their lives for the cause of Democracy. It's not a great film, but it does underline the glamour (they don't come more glamorous than Gable) of the warco, as well as his or her (Lana Turner is the aspiring warco under Gable's wing) enormous integrity.

Perhaps the first great warco movie is The Story of GI Joe (1945). Burgess Meredith plays Ernie Pyle, a news reporter who stays with a US infantry unit commanded by Robert Mitchum as it fights its way across North Africa. "The GI," says Pyle; "he lives so miserable. He dies so miserable." I doubt that much has changed in this respect. Shot almost documentary-style, it is an anti-war movie that General Eisenhower, no less, called the best war film ever made. Pyle himself was killed by a Japanese marksman on the island of Ie Shima, in April 1945. Which reminds us that part of the glamour of being a warco is the danger.

Set in Indo-China, The Quiet American (1958) is a chilling forewarning of what the US would be letting itself in for during the years to come. Michael Redgrave is the cynical reporter Thomas Fowler (played more recently by the Oscar-nominated Michael Caine, in the 2002 remake). Graham Greene didn't much care for this film, but importantly it shows us that even clapped-out warcos are colourful characters who can still pull the birds. What better comfort for the John Simpsons and Michael Buerks of this world?

In Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Arthur Kennedy is very good as the American reporter Jackson "I can make that boy be whoever he wants" Bentley, while David Janssen achieves a plausible incompetence as a craggy Vietnam news hound in the propagandising Green Berets (1968). But it would be another ten years before we met one of the seminal warcos of our time, in the person of Dennis Hopper. It will be recalled that in Apocalypse Now (1979), Hopper plays a crazed photojournalist (based on Sean Flynn, son of Errol). His performance is one of the most persuasive portraits of the breed. Hopper's character is so good that it looks as though Oliver Stone ripped him off for his 1986 film Salvador, in which John Savage plays Cassady, an absurdly committed Newsweek reporter/photographer who will go to any lengths, including getting himself killed, for "the perfect picture".

The 1980s were the high point of the warco movie; five or six of them came out in as many years. They included Last Plane Out (1982) and Under Fire (1983). Hacks themselves will probably prefer the nobility of The Killing Fields, in which Sam Waterston plays the New York journo Sydney Schanberg and Haing S Ngor plays his faithful Cambodian news aide, Dith Pran, left behind after the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975. But I tend to favour James Woods in Salvador as a sleazy, drug-taking, avaricious freelance in a country that is in the process of being raped by the CIA.

Recently, there have been Harrison's Flowers (2000) and War Stories (2002; made for television), but most notably there was Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), in which Michael Henderson, an ITN journalist (played by Stephen Dillane), becomes involved with the fate of a Sarajevo orphanage during the 1992-96 siege. Hacks probably love this film - at least, the ones who were there. For the rest of us, it only seems to convey - unintentionally, I suspect - the sanctimony of people who always somehow manage to convey the sense that what they are doing is the most interesting and important job in the world; and that because we do not care as much as them, the rest of us watching it all on the telly back home (those who are not living in the real world, they might say) need our heads knocking together.

Ultimately, the film misses an important point. It is not, as the Dillane character suggests in the movie, that the rest of us don't care very much about what is happening in Sarajevo or, for that matter, Iraq; but rather that our collective sense of compassion finds itself undermined at the moment when journalists like Henderson are cashing in accounts of their war exploits for six-figure advances from HarperCollins.

Philip Kerr is the New Statesman's film critic