Saturday Matinee 016: Legionnaire

We can’t just review good movies with great actors. In our quest for movies about irregular war, we’re going to sink deep into the abyss.

Yes, this is a review of a Jean-Claude Van Damme film.

It’s a review of a Van Damme film that went direct to video in 1998, so even it’s own mother (studio) didn’t love it. So why is Legionnaire here? Because it’s got some guns in it that you don’t see much, and it tells a story — if a bowdlerized, incomplete story — of a war that most English-speaking people know little of, the Rif War, which was actually a sequence of guerilla wars between Berber tribesmen, united for the first time in history under the charismatic Abd el-Karim, and Spanish and French colonial forces.

In Legionnaire, Van Damme begins as a boxer in 1920s France who agrees to take a dive for a couple of Corsican (?) criminal brothers, and then doesn’t take the dive. Among other consequences, an immediate need to leave town ensues, as he’s pursued by the crooks and also by the police, who turn out to be working for the crooks. After several narrow escapes, he finds himself before a Legion outpost, where he volunteers.

One problem set resolved. New problem set ensues.

Legion training is depicted as brutal (which gibes with what we’ve read) and chaotic (which does not). This may be more a function of the director’s storytelling skills than the script per se, but we see the disparate Legionnaires form into a unit by fits and starts. This is where a journeyman filmmaker, accepting that his whole movie is a succession of clichés anyway, reaches into his trope bag and grabs The Montage. This cat doesn’t do that, though; instead he tries to tell the story symbolically with a couple of vignettes. But sometimes a clichéd trope is that because it’s effective, and it would have worked better here.

The other volunteers with him gradually reveal their stories. There is a German bully, a naive Italian who dreams of his sweetheart at home, a plummy Englishman who turns out to be a former officer cashiered for writing bad checks to pay his gambling debts. They are under the tutelage of a sadistic sergent-chef who seems, according to those Legion stories we have heard, not nearly sadistic enough to be believed.

One nice detail is that the Legionnaires do sing as they march, and they sing like a military unit. If they had dubbed in a choir singing the classic Legion marching song La Boudin we would have doused ourselves in cognac and set ourselves ablaze with a Gauloise.

Van Damme, an athlete before he was an actor, has no problem with the physicality demanded of the role. As he’s playing a strong, silent type, he often doesn’t react to the emoting the other actors are doing, but it’s perfectly in character. (What we can’t understand is why the stone face is simultaneously proof that Van Damme can’t act, and proof that Matt Damon can. Can someone trained in acting tell us what we’re missing here?).

The character actors around Van Damme do a great job. Nicholas Farrell is note-perfect as the English ex-major with the integrity problem and Steven Berkoff gives some depth to the character of the sergent-chef. 

How accurate are the weapons? Well, better than you might think. The Legionnaires cary the dreadful Lebel rifle and bayonets, and have several machine guns, including M1914(?) Hotchkiss guns and Lewis guns. We are not convinced the Legion used the infantry Lewis, but we’re not experts on French small arms, which tend to be functional but… different.

The Hotchkiss gets minimal screen time in a training scene, which is a pity. The design is fascinating on several levels. It was invented by an American, but when a penurious Army wouldn’t buy them in sufficient quantity, he wound up moving to France where the armee francaise was snapping them up. (This is par for the course: Maxim and Lewis were also Americans whose guns found their earliest and best success overseas; Maxim moved to England and became a British subject). Hotchkiss guns were also adopted by the Empire of Japan and were used throughout WWII — they were heavy but reliable. The Hotchkiss’s tray feed looks bizarre today, but the typically 25-round sheet-metal strips were a viable alternative to the cloth belts used in its contemporaries, and could be manufactured with much greater precision.

The MG used the most in the battle scenes is the Lewis.Unfortunately. Usually we’d be delighted to watch this ur-ancestor of the M60 GPMG in action, but after seeing the tray-fed Hotchkiss in the training scenes, it’s a letdown.

The battle scenes are satisfyingly intense and ‘splodey, and there are plenty of them, but they do suffer from Hollywood explosions: colossal fireballs. An ambush scene at a water hole is chilling; the Legion platoon is in the kill zone, and the Berbers have them fully enveloped from the high ground. One would like to think a professional military man would not do that, other than under the sway of scriptwriters, but one supposes it happens.

There is a set-piece fort battle reminiscent of every other Legion movie (wasn’t Gary Cooper in all of those?) and not a few Westerns. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Minimal spoiler: the movie ends with the Berbers ascendant and a Legion survivor put to walking to tell the tale of the defeated outpost. It feels like a set-up to a sequel, which, given the commercial failure of the film, never happened.

Amazon has it for $7.21 (ships free with Prime) but with sharp eyes you can beat that: our copy came from the $5 bin at WalMart. A lot of entertainment for a fin. There are some extras on the disk, including a historian interviewed about the Foreign Legion and its unique ethos, and the Rif War in general. The Amazon customer review (same link) can give you a feel for how people liked it. You can find trailers online (but we couldn’t find one without an ad, so didn’t embed one).

Update: this post has been edited. Two typos have been corrected.