If you’ve watched the powerful war movie Beasts of No Nation, then you’ve definitely seen Tripod, and his tripod. This is his story.
Beasts of No Nation is a 2015 war movie based on the experiences of a child soldier called Agu, played by Ghanaian actor Abraham Attah. The story is part of a large genre of movies based on Africa that are stereotypical although it does offer more flesh for the characters than most other movies. But that is not the premise of this article. This article is about that naked soldier who stands beside the Commandant, played by Idris Elba.
For his cast and extras, director Cary Fukunaga employed the services of former child soldiers in the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Most of them were, however, arrested in the Ivory Coast on their way to set in Ghana because they were suspected mercenaries. Among the former child soldiers who made it on set is a man called, in real life, Anointed Wesseh and in the movie, Tripod. Tripod’s role is actually the least prominent of the main characters but his is the most bizarre one. His battle attire is nothing but his birthday suit covered by a few beads, and his machine gun.
Idris Elba told Rolling Stone that Wesseh “…comes from Liberia. And he was not just a child soldier who killed someone when he was 10, he was a real-life Commandant.” Then he adds “With him, there was none of that shit. It was, “No man. I kill him, I cut his heart out, I eat it while it’s still beating. I’ve done that before.”
He does have that face that tells you a man has seen war, but that’s if you can ignore that he is butt naked long enough to see his hardened face. The first time he appears, he is receiving instructions from his boss. Then he joins the march and no one, absolutely no one says anything. It’s distracting to the viewer, but that seems to be the idea. To show just how a group of strangers becomes so meshed together by a common ideology and mission that they accept each others eccentricities with no qualms.
According to the IMDb trivia section on the movie, Wesseh insisted on going naked for his scenes. He must have had his reasons but one likely one, other than the fact that he just wanted to be that naked guy in Beasts of No Nation, is that he was inspired by a rebel army leader in a war he (Wesseh) fought in.
Wesseh was a child soldier in Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). One of Taylor’s senior commandants, Prince Johnson broke ranks with him and formed his own faction. Johnson and his men captured Monrovia and infamously led the mutilation, torture and murder of the then President Samuel Doe (which was all caught on film). Elba’s character as the Commandant is a composite of these and many different profiles of rebel and military leaders. The usual facets of charisma, a skewed sense of nobility, the penchant to be utterly ruthless, and the right amount of madness to lead people into a war are there. He rolls between charismatic speeches to walking into war completely unarmed but for a small fly-whisk as he dances to the bullets whizzing past him. He also, like Johnson, breaks ranks with his boss when he disagrees with him.
Another rebel in Liberia’s carnage in those years was a man called Roosevelt Johnson, a mortal enemy to Taylor’s side. Among Roosevelt’s charges at the time was a young man called Joshua Milton Blahyi, more commonly remembered by his nom de guerre General Butt Naked, for self-descriptive reasons. Blahyi, now a pastor in Monrovia, famously led his rebel group of child soldiers into war while butt naked but for a pair of sneakers and a machine gun. His child soldiers, often running on cocaine and euphoria, followed suit, giving birth to the Butt Naked Brigade. Sometimes they would wear floral dresses and carry purses. This bizarre form of costume, or lack of, made them the most eccentric rebel group in a country with more rebel groups and factions than almost anywhere else in the world.
It’s not clear whether Tripod’s decision to let the entire world see his tripod was inspired by this former rebel leader. It is likely though, given that General Butt Naked recruited and led child soldiers, the entire premise of the movie. Wesseh was there to see and participate in it all, and probably also ran amok without clothes. Although he says and does little in the entire movie, and Attah definitely delivers a winning performance, Tripod reminds us that wars are sometimes fought by naked men. And that clothes and uniform do not a better soldier make.
The movie is not set in Liberia or any of the countries around that have seen war. Instead, it seems to be a mash-up of several stories, as the characters are all mashups of different characters. It is a powerful story though, and Tripod’s straight face as he marches stark naked is a welcome distraction from all the gore and emotional carnage.
One story is good,
till Another is told.