Hell and Back Again (Blu-ray) (2011)

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Released 12-Sep-2012

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Documentary Audio Commentary-Director and Editor
Featurette-Technical Gear Demo
Music Video-Willie Nelson "Hell and Back"
Featurette-Did You Kill Anyone?
Featurette-Invisible Wounds
Featurette-Collateral Damage
Featurette-Blue Star Families PSA
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 2011
Running Time 88:00
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Danfung Dennis

Madman Entertainment
Starring Nathan Harris
Ashley Harris
The Marines of Echo Company
Christian Cabaniss
Eric Meador
Ted Hubbard
Terry Roberts
Doug Webb
Robert Gaines
Matthew Swibe
Chris MacDonald
Case Standard Blu-ray
RPI ? Music J. Ralph

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English DTS HD Master Audio 5.1
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 1080p
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis


Nominated for the 2012 Academy Awards For Best Documentary, Hell and Back Again is the story of a US Marine Sgt injured in Afghanistan in 2009 as he and his wife cope with his complex physical and mental rehabilitation. It is a fascinating documentary, showing a soldier as just that and not a poster boy for pro or anti War campaigners.

Director Danfung Dennis was a photojournalist reporting to the New York Times and other journals from war zones. He felt that the still images didn't capture the nature of life on the front line and with the assistance of the US military was embedded with the Marine Corps in 2009, going deep behind enemy lines. In order to film the soldiers Dennis had to improvise by creating a camera rig that could take him right behind the gun sites.

The effect is extraordinary. This is not some grainy incomprehensible piece of footage but rather some of the clearest military documentary footage ever recorded. Dennis manages to capture the stress, the boredom, the exhilaration and sometimes the terror of battle. In Afghanistan fighting behind enemy lines means walking complex tight ropes, wanting to keep on side with the locals at the same time as rooting out the insurgents.

The film is split between life on the battle field and life back home. When Sgt Nathan Phillips is seriously wounded he returns to civilian life not only as a soldier without a war but as a man whose confidence in his physical abilities is deeply challenged. In a real-life counterpart to the scene in The Hurt Locker, where these soldier faces wall after wall of supermarket products with incomprehension and anxiety, so does Sgt Phillips become stressed and frustrated when his wife can't find a car park in the local Walmart. Things are easier, clearer in Afghanistan, he reasons.

Life at home to Sgt Phillips is incredibly difficult. His physiotherapy and rehabilitation exercises are extraordinarily painful. He is frustrated with his lack of progress and the devastation he feels when told that it may be another year before he can "get back to killing people" is palpable.

Right there is another bracingly honest aspect to the documentary. Sgt Phillips is a soldier first and foremost. He admits that his role in Afghanistan was to follow orders, to shoot who he was told to shoot. His was not to understand the deeper overall conflict. He is frank in his admission that his job is to kill people and that, until his injury, he did his job very well.

Fascinatingly, the Sgt Phillips we see eating take-out and playing Call of Duty 4 on Xbox is a world away from the confident and competent Sgt looking after his men as he negotiates the mission. As said, the film does not purport to show him as anything but the sort of man that you'd want to be leading troops in some foreign conflict. He is no Ron Kovic (played by Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July) realising the futility of war after returning injured. Sgt Phillips could think of nothing better than getting back out there in the dust of the desert. For us the viewer, however, the vision is more sobering, the thought of the thousands of men and women who have paid with their lives for this complex and confusing conflict.

In taking us into the life of Sgt Phillips and his devoted and often long-suffering wife Dennis has humanised the world of soldiers who still believe that "ours is not question why, ours is but to do or die". The film makes for fascinating and often difficult viewing and belongs in the collection of any serious documentary fan.

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Transfer Quality



Hell and Back Again was filmed on high-definition digital cameras and displayed in the cinema at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. That ratio has been preserved for this Blu-ray release.

The story of the filming displays a good deal of ingenuity and dedication. There is a special feature included with this release which goes into some detail, in fact extraordinary detail, as to each of the camera set-ups and pieces of recording equipment used for the film.

The effect is to create a hyper-real battle situation. We are used to seeing battle sequences recorded with low quality video equipment. Certainly that gives us an impression of the confusion of life in the trenches however the footage captured by Danfung Dennis as he worked alongside the troops is nothing short of extraordinary. The image quality is as crisp and clear as if it was filmed for a feature. The director himself points out only one moment where he can be seen, as he reaches out a hand to help up a marine who has fallen over. Otherwise we could simply be another grunt moving purposefully through the desert trying to guess where the enemy is hiding.

Even in the intense dusty scenes there is no compression to speak of and the flesh tones and level of detail is superb throughout the director points out that he created an entirely different filming rig for shooting the civilian sequences with a short but very precise focus. Again, the effect is to create a sharp and crisp look.

The colours are clear and bright throughout.

There are no subtitles except where non-English language is spoken and when the microphone had trouble picking up the dialogue.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts



Hell and Back Again carries an English DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track.

Again, this required some skilful efforts on the part of director Danfung Dennis to record the sounds in the battle scenes. He had to use a more complicated setup in order to be able to hear and record all the action.

There is a definite clarity to the sound in the battle scenes even if sometimes the soldiers are understandably talking over each other and comprehension is difficult. The dialogue is otherwise clear although often spoken in a heavily accented Carolina drawl.

The surrounds give a good depth of field to the listening experince and the sub-woofer is used to devastating effect at times when mortars hit. It is sometimes the sounds in the distance that create the greatest fear, as danger approaches.

Music and sound design are by J Ralph who contributes a subtle score. He also uses sound to interesting effect bringing the noise of the battle into the civilians scenes to suggest the intrusion of the war into everyday life.

Willie Nelson sings a Ralph penned song for the closing credits.

There are no technical defects with the sound.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


There are a number of extra features on this Blu-ray release. In fact, the rear of the Blu-ray case suggests that these are "DVD special features".

Audio commentary with director Danfung Dennis, editor Fiona Otway and Sgt Nathan and Ashley Harris.

The title is slightly misleading. Only the director and editor really contribute to the commentary track. The Sgt and his wife are recorded after watching the first showing of the film and their are appreciative comments are played in the closing credits. Worthwhile listening to nonetheless.

The main commentary involving the director and editor is interesting throughout although it must be said that there are long periods of silence when the pair simply watched the movie unfold.

Nevertheless, Dennis takes us through the history behind his involvement in the project. The credit sequence has a moment when a bus arrives bringing home a number of Marines. In fact, this was the first time that Dennis, who had spent months filming the Company had realised that Sgt Harris was not amongst those returning. He was told of the injury to the Sgt leading to the whole story behind the movie

The editor Fiona Otway talks about the difficulty of putting some of the scenes together working out when to juxtapose the banality of civilian life with the heat of battle.

Technical Gear Demo(5.46)

This featurette is exactly as it is described. Director Danfung Dennis explains each of the camera rigs that he took into battle and Walmart. Although an interesting watch this is best suited to the technically minded as Dennis gives a wealth of otherwise indecipherable technical information about his equipment.

Willie Nelson's "Hell and Back" (3.14)

This moving song from country music superstar Nelson is accompanied by footage from the film and also some moments that did not appear to have been in the final cut.

Did You Kill Anyone? (7.09)

An interesting feature in which an experienced military wife explains to roomful of family and friends of returning servicemen what to expect from their soldiers when they return to normalcy.

Invisible Wounds (3.00)

The same type of feature but from a different perspective. Here the Marines themselves are getting lectured in the importance of seeking help if they need it.

Collateral Damage

A short feature in which the soldiers talk about their offensive against the enemy and the concerns of collateral damage.

Blue Star Families PSA

A short public service announcement in which a group of celebrities urge those servicemen who are suffering from psychological issues to call a free, confidential service for help.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Blu-ray versions are the same.Buy local.



Hell and Back Again is a deep and often disturbing film bringing us close to the mind of a career soldier who makes no bones about the fact that he, as a marine, is "skilled in the application of violence".

The Blu-ray quality is exceptionally high for a film that would otherwise be excused for looking gritty and average. The extras are interesting and comprehensive.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Trevor Darge (read my bio)
Saturday, November 24, 2012
Review Equipment
DVDCambridge 650BD (All Regions), using HDMI output
DisplaySony VPL-VW80 Projector on 110" Screen. Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080p.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationPioneer SC-LX 81 7.1
SpeakersAaron ATS-5 7.1

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