Saturday Matinee 035: The Deserter

We’re going to begin this review with a spoiler, because we waited the whole damn movie for the protagonist to desert, and he never does. So why is the movie called The Deserter? Because secondary characters do, and they can’t use the name of the book the movie dramatizes: it’s called The Legionnaire, and that was the name of a less-bad-than-you’d-expect Jean Claude van Damme show that we’ve already reviewed in this series.

What it is, is a movie about a 19- or 20-year-old Briton in 1960 who tells a young lady rejecting his advances that if she won’t marry him, he’ll run off and join the French Foreign Legion. We open in Marseille; at the same caserne, in fact, where van Damme’s character joins up to flee other complications. Young Simon Murray is in a dressy double-breasted suit, carrying a briefcase, as he is handed a huge stack of paper. “Sign here.” He does, and he’s the property of the Legion Étrangère, although not yet a Legionnaire. That title, you see, must be earned, and Murray and his raggedy fellows are greeted by the hardened caporal and sergent-chef at Mascara in Algeria with skepticism — and cruelty.

The Legion’s training was never new-agey, and in those days it was brutal, featuring corporal punishment, muscle failure PT, obstacle courses seemingly designed by that French luminary, le marquis de Sade, the pelote (a Legion-specific evolution involving a ruck full of rocks and duckwalking), and did we mention corporal punishment?

Along the way, the new recruits bond and enjoy, occasionally, trying to put one over on the NCOs. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes not. (What are they going to do, beat you? They were going to do that anyway). As happens in military training, the Dear John letters come streaming in and the boys begin to harden into men. But there’s no overstating the harshness of Legion life.

There is not much attention to weapons training on screen but all of the Legionnaires are shown to be proficient with the MAS 36 rifle, the MAT 49 SMG, M1935A and 1935S pistols, the M1919 Browning LMG, and mortars. Some of the weapons are correct for the unit and the period, some are not, and the vehicles are all wrong, suggesting that the exteriors were shot nearer to LA than Algiers: M151 jeeps and M35 2 1/2 ton trucks, and a very out-of-place M60 series tank, amusingly labeled (in French) “Friday the 13th.”

The film’s low budget ($3.5 million, ten years ago) comes shining through at times. At one point, some genius of an armorer or set dresser has mounted an M1919A4 upside-down in the pintle, its pistol grip reaching for the sky in rigor mortis, the dying cockroach of machine guns.

Likewise, the men are supposed to be members of the 2e REP and display para badges and regimental crests once they graduate from training, but are never shown undergoing any airborne training. This is likely a function of the budget. They did budget enough gasoline for big, fake explosions, but unfortunately there is more jaw-jaw than war-war. It’s a bit too true to life that way: “hurry up and wait” is great for verisimilitude, but not so much for drama.

Simon meets interesting characters including a pair of French ladies (one of whom seems to fill the gap in his heart left by the Dear John news), an Arab tea merchant and a world-weary mullah who dreams of an end to the war so his young students will come back from the hills.

At times the film gets politically correct and anachronistically preachy, and at one point we were ready to give up on the film as too Hollywood and hopelessly fake. So we paused it and went to a bookstore, where we found the book The Legionnaire, and discovered to our shock and awe that Simon Murray is a real person (the film reveals this at the end) and that he actually kept a diary, upon which book and movie are based.

As the forces of the FLN (pro-independence terrorists and guerrillas) fought the pieds-noirs (Algeria-born Frenchmen) and OAS (Secret Army Organization, anti-independence terrorists and guerrillas), many of the Legionnaires, like many of their leaders, have divided loyalties.

History fans probably know the story of how De Gaulle resolved to grant Algeria independence, only to meet violent resistance from the OAS and an attempted coup by military officers. Simon faces the decisions a private soldier in an army in rebellion must always face: be loyal to flag, or to unit and leaders? And he gets some good advice from the tough French lieutenant he admires.

Some soldiers stay with the unit, some rebel and join the OAS, bad things befall Simon’s friends French and Arab alike, and the situation resolves with more drama than the sometimes lagging storyline led us to expect.

The DVD credits Tom Hardy (bad guy Bane in the recent Batman film) first, but he plays the foil, Dupont; Simon Murray is played (and very well, indeed) by Paul Fox. The rising popularity of Hardy has driven the DVD release, but we did find it in the $5 bin, so he only drives it so far.

At the end of the movie, we liked it rather better than in the flagging middle. The best scenes opened us up to the film a little: when Simon confesses to his recruit buddies that he told his girlfriend Jennifer, who is now going to marry some other guy, that he told her if she wouldn’t marry him he’d join the Legion. “You’re truly a man of your word!” one of his friends howls. The scene of the recruits’ initiation in the Legion, and their presentation of the kepi blanc, is extremely well done. By that time we’ve seen these young men transformed from rabble in ill-fitting fatigues to clean and proud Legionnaires.

With the movie over, and knowing it was based on a true story, we had to look up Simon Murray and see what became of him in later life. We were pleased to discover he is still alive, a success both as a businessman and an adventurer, and still married to his first wife, who, through a remarkable coincidence, we had met some years ago while she, an adventurer in her own right, was doing some daring things.

It’s truly a small world. As to the movie — not the best (for the record, Legion vets speak well of 1939’s Beau Geste and March or Die with Gene Hackman), not the worst, well worth the $5 in our book.