Monday, August 29, 2011

LOST COMMAND (1966): The other Battle of Algiers

Of the two films released in 1966 about the "Battle of Algiers" -- the terrorist campaign aimed at driving France out of Algeria in the 1950s -- it is the colorful big-budget Hollywood production with an international cast of stars, not the monochrome semi-documentary with a cast of nobodies that has been almost completely forgotten. Yet Mark Robson's film had a head start on Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers, being based on an international best-seller and prize-winning French novel, The Centurions, by Jean Larteguy. It starred Anthony Quinn, still fairly fresh from Zorba the Greek, alongside Alain Delon at the height of his stardom. So why has film history ignored Lost Command and exalted Battle of Algiers? For one thing, Pontecorvo's is the better film. It set a new standard for simulated realism and by siding with the insurgents it captured the radical zeitgeist of the late 1960s. By identifying with, if not siding with, the French occupiers, Robson's film could only appear reactionary, a Franco-American counterpart to The Green Berets, by comparison with Pontecorvo's Battle. Lost Command is innovative neither in narrative nor in visual style. But if it's indisputably inferior to Battle, does that make it an objectively bad movie?

Robson's movie probably is some kind of cinematic landmark, if only for being an early portrayal of the west's failure to subdue Vietnam. Lost Command opens during the battle of Dien Bien Phu, as paratroopers arrive to relieve an embattled unit commanded by Lt. Col. Raspeguy (Quinn). The colonel is irked to learn that his superiors have sent him a unit historian, Capt, Esclavier (Delon), but the academic proves a decent soldier -- not that that helps the unit much. They're forced to surrender (to Burt "Kato" Kwouk) and are imprisoned for some time, but under Raspeguy's leadership they largely retain cohesion and morale.

Freed at last, the men return to France, where Raspeguy courts an influential widow (Michele Morgan) who might help him secure a generalship. He can help his own cause with a good showing in Algeria, where the natives are restless. He regathers much of his old unit, including an initially reluctant Esclavier but not Lt. Mahidi (George Segal), who had returned to his native Algeria after their release. In Algeria, they gradually learn that Mahidi, who had been humiliated by racist French settlers and saw a relative killed during a protest, has taken his tactical expertise to the insurgents. While he concentrates on building a guerrila army, his sister (Claudia Cardinale) smuggles bomb-making materials to terrorists in the Casbah, eventually using an infatuated Esclavier -- who doesn't learn of her family ties until later -- as dupe to get her past checkpoints. The French forces, with widely varying degrees of enthusiasm, resort to torture to break the terror network and learn the whereabouts of Mahidi's army-in-the-making. Raspeguy leads the attack to destroy Mahidi's army and earn his generalship, but will he keep his promise to Esclavier to take their old comrade alive?...

As the poster said, they lived and loved and fought:
Anthony Quinn and Michele Morgan (above),
and Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale (below)
What we have here is the age-old conflict between the man of action and the intellectual. Raspeguy is a "beautiful beast of war," so called by the widow because he furiously rejects her first description of him as a "beautiful animal of war." Raspeguy hates being called an "animal" with the passion of one who's been called that frequently. Maybe something didn't translate well from the French, but I'm not clear on why "beast" is any better. The colonel's sensitivity has something to do with his background as a Basque peasant -- and the character's standing as an ethnic outsider among Frenchmen presumably explains Anthony Quinn's casting alongside a mostly French ensemble who speak English in their own well-accented voices -- with the conspicuous exception of Jean Servais as a general who talks in the familiar voice of Paul Frees. One weakness of this picture is the buildup it gives Raspeguy's animus to "animal," which ends up having much less payoff than we might expect.

Alain Delon has more to work with as a more sensitive personality who struggles to avoid the coarsening effect of war. Literally dropped into Quinn's unit at the opening, he's the audience-identification character and the film's political conscience. He isn't unsympathetic to the cause of Algerian independence, and puts up the most resistance not just to the use of torture against the terrorists (novelist Larteguy is credited by Wikipedia with inventing the torture-justifying "ticking bomb" scenario), but also to the French reliance on masked informers. He cracks, however, when he learns how the Cardinale character had duped him. Fresh from his principled protests, he beats her up in a rage that he appears quickly to regret, extracting more gently from her the whereabouts of Mahidi in return for Raspeguy's promise to spare the miliant's life. Esclavier will later have cause to call Raspeguy the "A-word," but while the result finally convinces him to quit the military, the moment is still fairly underwhelming.
What isn't underwhelming at all is the spectacular location work of Robson and cinematographer Robert Surtees in Spain. All the military engagements are engagingly shot, none more so than the climactic raid on Mahidi. Robson establishes the insurgents' location at the ruins of a Roman temple in the hills, and uses that temple as a reference point to make the rival forces' positions perfectly clear in every shot. However retrograde Lost Command may be from a political standpoint, it succeeds quite nicely as a colorful military action film. It may still go down as a curiosity in the Quinn and Delon filmographies, but it certainly doesn't deserve an obscurity that persists despite an official DVD release from Sony some time ago.
I might have suggested that it should endure alongside Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers to represent the other point of view, but that's not really true -- Robson's film does not oppose Pontecorvo's. Lost Command ends with the implication that Algeria's demand for independence is irrepressible, and the film never claims that the Algerians were undeserving of freedom. But it suffers in comparison to Battle because Robson never makes Mahidi the equal antagonist that the character's backstory prepares him to be. Once he turns against the France, however just his cause may be, Mahidi himself becomes little more than a menace. The movie could have used some sort of confrontation, however contrived, between Mahidi and Raspeguy or Esclavier so the insurgent could explain more eloquently or convincingly what drove a soldier who refused preferential treatment, as a presumed victim of colonialism, from his Vietnamese captors, to make war on his erstwhile comrades-in-arms. But the filmmakers may have been playing it safe, since you can stretch the credibility of George Segal as an Algerian only so far. Nevertheless, history has judged Mahidi's real-life counterparts the true protagonists of the Algerian uprising, while cinema history has judged The Battle of Algiers the definitive film version of that event. Those judgments can stand, but Lost Command should retain historical interest for presenting, not the other, but just another point of view in dramatically forceful style.

And here's the US trailer, uploaded to YouTube by SupportingActor.

No comments: