Lost Command and The Battle Of Algiers are two films released in the same year (1966) on the same subject – the latter a haunting warning down the years to colonialist intervention and the threat of disaffected insurgency (covered by me here); the former a gung – ho action adventure and clash of command ideologies, with a smidgen of Algiers’ social conscience as an afterthought. So I suppose that film, with Alain Delon and Anthony Quinn as French paras, counts as this month’s John Milius – lite Guilty Pleasure.
The film, helmed by director and producer Mark Robson (Peyton Place, Von Ryan’s Express) is based on a 1960 French novel, The Centurions, by Jean Lartéguy, a French journalist and former soldier. Its central character is Lt Colonel Raspeguy, played by Quinn, a gruff, Basque bastard, who chafes at the social elitism of the army. He is loosely based on Marcel Bigeard, a WWII Resistance veteran, also the inspiration for Colonel Jean Mathieu in The Battle of Algiers. Raspeguy seeks patronage in the boudoir of a former comrade’s well-connected widow (she calls him a “beautiful beast of war“) for a second chance after the disastrous loss of Dien Bien Phu in French Indo-China. Thereafter, Raspeguy gets a new command in Algeria, rooting out the FLN resistance in another dirty little colonial “policing action”.
The command structure he creates has as its base Delon’s sensitive poet warrior, Captain Phillipe Esclavier, a scholar who resists the gradually more extreme methods used in the campaign, and Indo-China born Captain Boisfeures (Maurice Ronet) of more limited thinking, with a liking for blood. They soon find they are up against Mahidi (a ridiculously browned-up George Segal, possibly also dubbed), a former Algerian comrade from the previous campaign, now leading rebels in the mountains. Claudia Cardinale plays Mahidi’s sister Aicha, whose European looks enable her to smilingly smuggle explosives past Casbah checkpoints, in much the same way as depicted in The Battle Of Algiers – this time “In color!”
Whilst its Spanish Almeira locations stand in well enough for Algeria and are shot nicely by Oscar winning DoP Robert Surtees (Ben Hur, The Graduate), the Vietnam introduction is laughably exposed and underpopulated. The late Burt Kwouk here plays a Viet Minh officer who offers Mahidi preferential treatment when captured, as one who suffers under an Imperialist yoke (he nobly demurs, before homeland enlightenment). Raspeguy gets revenge on their tormentor on a forced march by grinding Kwouk’s jeep keys into the mud. Along with the recent superior Intimate Enemies, it is interesting to see the later wider Algerian campaign outside the capital, especially the paras assault on Mahidi’s guerillas amongst spectacular Roman ruins in the mountains. Atrocities and reprisals are shown on both sides, which caused the sensitive French to ban the film for a number of years. Incidentally, the narration in this period behind the scenes promo is hilariously out of step with the subject matter:
Although it revels in action I wouldn’t simply dismiss it as a Green Berets – like wish fulfilment for the French forces it largely identifies with. Mahidi is shown as having legitimate grievances – his brother is killed in a protest, he himself is harassed by settlers. Once it moves into Algiers itself and the Paras ride rough – shod over the civilian administration, rounding up suspects and dealing out torture (offscreen, although we see a para spark up electrodes, just as in The Battle Of Algiers) whilst an FLN bomb ticks away, there is some nuance and faint echoes of Pontecorvo’s superior documentary – like approach. When a disillusioned Esclavier demobs and leaves, police round up graffiti artists declaring political ideology on the barracks wall. Moments later, young boys take up the brush, finishing the slogan off to his amusement when their backs are turned. It is this final coda that should be remembered, rather than Raspeguy’s promotion on the back of his brute force subjugation.