Tears of the Sun (2003)


Written for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Office of Film and Broadcasting.

Simplistic war-movie morality play lionizes superheroic US Navy SEALs led by Bruce Willis as they rescue refugees and battle evil ethnic-cleansing rebel forces amid a Nigerian civil war. Director Antoine Fuqua’s tribute to US military men celebrates fortitude and compassion, but its generic, unconvincing moral dilemmas and dimensionless characters fail as drama.


Tears of the Sun (Columbia) presents a picture of American military presence abroad that is simultaneously appealing and troubling: superheroic Navy SEALs going about doing good, rescuing refugees, battling evil ethnic-cleansing rebels, and earning the gratitude and goodwill of indigenous peoples, all in defiance of their orders and American foreign policy.

2003, Columbia. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Bruce Willis, Monica Bellucci, Cole Hauser, Johnny Messner, Tom Skerritt.

Artistic/Entertainment Value

Moral/Spiritual Value

+2 / -2

Age Appropriateness


MPAA Rating


Caveat Spectator

Battlefield violence, restrained depictions of ethnic cleansing, a brief depiction of rape with fleeting nudity, and much rough language and intermittent profanity.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), this tribute to US military men sets up morality-play scenarios in which Lt. A. K. Waters (Willis), leading a team of basically interchangeable commandos, must choose between following orders and helping people.

Parachuting into a Nigeria disintegrating into civil war and genocide, Waters’s mission is to extract up to four foreign nationals, primarily a lovely mission-field doctor (Monica Bellucci) but also potentially a priest and two nuns. When the doctor refuses to abandon her Nigerian patients to be slaughtered by the guerrilla rebels, Waters takes the path of least resistance, evacuating as many of the patients as he can along with her, knowing that at the extraction point these refugees must be left behind.

Yet when the moment comes, Waters decides instead to fill the helicopter with refugees and try to escort the rest to safety at the border. Asked by one of his men why he’s doing this, Waters can only reply, "When I figure that out, I’ll let you know."

Later, trekking through the jungle, the SEALs come upon a horrific scene of ethnic cleansing in progress. Dismissing their orders to engage only if fired upon with a terse "We’re already engaged," Waters leads a commando assault on the genocidal guerrillas, picking them off one by one in a precise, methodical op.

If the events in this film had really happened, one could hardly fail to be moved by the lives saved and the atrocities cut short, as well as by the matter-of-fact fortitude, heroism, and sheer competence of the Navy SEALs. It’s also worth noting that while Tears of the Sun advocates action, it doesn’t glamorize violence; the battlefield scenes, especially in the first two-thirds of the film, are grimly matter-of-fact, with no grandstanding or macho posturing by Waters and his men.

As drama, though, Tears is simplistic and unconvincing on many levels. For one thing, there’s no interest or insight either into Waters’s motivation as a character at this point in his career to begin disobeying orders to accomplish a greater good, or into the complex moral and ethical questions entailed in such a decision.

Nor does Tears engage issues regarding when military intervention in another country’s affairs is or isn’t justified. The film simply extols intervention and deplores nonaction, even closing with a title card quoting the famous line from Edmund Burke that "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Nearly everything about the film seems calculated for knee-jerk emotional effect and little more, from the execution of the mission priest, to the sexy doctor’s perpetually half-unbuttoned blouse, to the presence of an African-American SEAL who solemnly declares that "these Africans are my people, too," to the decision of Waters’s commanding officer off the coastline to delay sending air support until the absolute last possible moment, to the tearful gratitude of the refugees who tell the Americans that God will never forget what they have done.

The sequence at the village, in particular, comes across as a generic, textbook moral dilemma, with nothing to make this particular situation different from countless other circumstances that a veteran SEAL like Waters must surely have faced in his life. The movie effectively pushes emotional buttons — we hear the screams of the villagers, see them being executed — yet in the absence of any larger drama of characters or exploration of moral issues, the horror seems manipulative rather than dramatically justified.

Ultimately, Tears of the Sun has nothing more compelling to offer than pictures of heroes helping victims.

Because of recurring battlefield violence, restrained depictions of ethnic cleansing, a brief depiction of rape with fleeting nudity, and much rough language and intermittent profanity, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops classification is A-IV — adults, with reservations. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted.

Drama, Geisha Movie, War