This meandering and ultimately pointless journey of mine through the first one hundred years of Great War Films has been a bit of a trudge if I’m honest. An uphill struggle through a squally shower with an iPod low on battery and one dodgy earphone. At least that was the case until last weeks ‘King of Hearts’. I’d struggled through dog after dog for the first few weeks. Films with nowt to offer but hackneyed, samey, stereotype stories and plots with poorly written characters and lacklustre production values. Last week, as I popped in the DVD, I was expecting more of the same but as it happened I lucked out with ‘King of Hearts’ which was quite frankly, a little gem. A diamond in my particular little spot of rough.
And so I came to this weeks film. I totally didn’t know what to expect. I’d been struggling for some time to find a copy and had been holding off from chucking it all in and searching for it on the youtubes. But give in I finally did and thus it was that lo! I found a decent, subtitled youtube video to watch. As I press on the white play triangle my anticipation is palpable. It opens up with a brash reminder that what you’re about to watch was the 1976 Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Language Film. My interest is piqued. High fives all round. Two great Great War Films in a row? Surely not.
I quickly realised that what I was watching was ‘Great’. The more I watched the better it got. What we basically have is a satirical, black comedy taking unflinching swipes at French colonials and their superior minded antics in an un-named African nation. Of course, all the colonising nations in the late 19th and early 20th century were bastards, some more than others…..I’m looking at you Belgium. And it wouldn’t be fair for any one of them (us) to point the finger at any other one, but to take a swipe at your own is something (in light of the heavily partisan Great War Films I’ve chuntered through recently) bordering on treason.
But it is a French production (even though the film purports to be a production of the Cote D’Ivoire) and they are happy to dig a swift jab into the ribs of the ignorant land-grabbers out to take the locals for everything they can. The premise is that it’s New Year 1915 and in whatever sub Saharan backwater it is that this film is set in, the news of the start of the Great War has just reached them. The small group of French set about building an army out of the locals to fight the Germans who they were getting on well and indeed trading goods with not five minutes before.
The film switches from satire, to light hearted slapstick through to the deeply sad and anger inducing. It does it all with a swiftness that left me unsure how to feel. It has a farcical feel in places which is probably fitting and in others the feel is documentarian with handicam style, jiggery, up and down camera work giving it a fly on the wall feel.
There is a scene where the males from a local tribe have been press-ganged into forming an army to fight against the Germans just over the border. The small tight-knit group of expatriate French set up a picnic for the spectacle as they send their troops forward. They clearly expect a bit of light spear chucking, maybe a bang or two as a rusty musket is fired yards high of its target. It quickly becomes clear that the Germans are well prepared and well equipped as the poor press-ganged troops limp back assisting each other with terrible wounds. The colonial masters, agog, panic and flee, leaving the locals to slowly expire with their blood spilled evenly over the hillside.
I like this film for so many reasons. Firstly, there aren’t too many films on my list that show the conflict in Africa and particularly with this much of an unflinching eye for the zeitgeist and cultural details. Secondly, I like the way it pokes fun at the right people and shows the Africans as the good guys being hoodwinked out of their land, their culture, their religion, their property and ultimately their lives. Thirdly, I like the way the Germans are portrayed are almost nice, certainly in comparison to the central bastards of the story.
So what we have overall is a black comedy that is also an unswervingly honest and scathing social commentary on the behaviour of the colonists of the late 19th/early 20th centuries. But why stop there, maybe this is also a critique of our modern world. A plane packed full of foreigners crashes and it barely makes the papers, terrorists bomb a school in a faraway land and the news item comes after the ad break, a mother wails into a camera lens as she mourn the loss of her freedom fighting son and we (I?), desensitized to such things, continue to eat our dinner and explain in simple terms to our children how it isn’t happening here and how they shouldn’t worry, they are safe from such things.
Yes, yes yes. This is a Great Great War Film. It resonates to the current day and is an important historical document. It deserved its’ Oscar, it’s just a shame it’s not better known today. I hope, in some way, I can change that. If you haven’t seen it Clicky Clicky here, buy it and let me know what you think. Hope you like it.
Next time, we’re jumping forward to the 80’s. Oh dear.