What day should be chosen to attack the Germans just up the river, ponders the French in flea-ridden Ft. Coulais, in the Ivory Coast? "You can't go wrong choosing the Lord's Day," urges one of the two priests, with the other nodding enthusiastically. Please note that elements of the plot are discussed, but nothing that also isn't mentioned on the back-cover of the case and in the accompanying insert
Black and White in Color tells the story of a motley group of Frenchmen, including a few shopkeepers, at a colonial outpost in Africa who learn belatedly that World War I is underway. Since a German outpost, with three Germans, is just a few miles away, La Gloire and honor dictate an attack. Of course, the real fighting will be done by hastily recruited natives on both sides. The fort's young teacher, Hubert Fresnoy (Jacques Spieser) had heard that there is a sensible German and says he wants to try to negotiate. With La Gloire, that would be impossible. The shopkeepers demand French honor be sustained with an immediate attack on the Germans with whom they'd been trading (and unknowingly sharing their wives) just days before.
And off they go. The shopkeepers, two priests and two wives are carried in palanquins by natives. The hastily recruited and untrained native soldiers are armed with old rifles and some slightly damp powder. They're led by the tired and realistic Sergeant Bosselet (Jean Carmet) only three years from retirement. The teacher reluctantly tags along. And they all -- well, the whites -- stop for a picnic just before the battle starts. War, they appreciate, can be great fun as well as a source of great pride. Unfortunately, the Germans have machine guns. As the native troops stagger back, the whites hastily pack up the food and dishes and head quickly back to the fort. Surrender seems the logical next step to the shopkeepers, even though no one has yet seen a German. But La Gloire prevails: No surrender...as long as the Germans stay away!
Now the amusing part really begins. The teacher, who had been ridiculed by the shopkeepers as being all brains and no heart, decides to step in. He convinces the sergeant, who needs all the brains he can find, to back him up as he plans for the defense of Ft. Coulais. Before long we begin to notice that the teacher is not only training the troops, he is turning the fort's colonial society on it's head. The casual corruption of the self-inflating shopkeepers is exposed. Positions of authority are being given to natives. The teacher's mistress, a black woman, accompanies him to another picnic, and this time the wives and shopkeepers find themselves shaking her hand.
All good things come to an end, of course, and so does World War I. A British company led by a Sikh captain marches into Ft. Coulais with bagpipes playing to inform them that the German colony is now a British colony. The war is over; the next-door enemy has become an ally. And the teacher, a Socialist, who was well on his way to becoming a benevolent and anti-colonial dictator, is last seen wandering off with his German counterpart, who is also a Socialist.
This was director Jean-Paul Annaud's first film. It's a wonderfully sardonic, amusing movie about hubris, patriotism and racism, and surprisingly gentle. Those who believe that "glory" can come without a steep price, who believe war is a great adventure as long as it's experienced at a distance, who believe whites are intrinsically superior, all take their share of ridicule. "White men are stronger than black men. Why?" shouts a priest. "Because they have a better god!" comes the well-rehearsed answer. Of course, in his own language one native says to another, while the white sergeant slaps away an insect, "Didn't I tell you white men attract flies?" In one quick scene a native who had been facing Mecca and praying quickly disappears into his hut and reappears wearing a cross just as the priests arrive.
In a commentary on the DVD Annaud says that the movie is a fable based on reality, "how white people behave with natives. Even today it is appalling." The movie is more than this. How people often think about war is appalling; how people get caught up in La Gloire is appalling. Annaud skewers all of it.
The DVD looks very good. The disc contains several extras, in addition to the interview with Annaud. The most noteworthy is the 88-minute film "The Sky Above, the Mud Below" which documents a team of scientists journeying into unexplored parts of New Guinea and finding tribes of people who'd never seen anyone except themselves. Producer Arthur Cohn was responsible for both films. The DVD case also holds a four-page insert with an excellent essay about the film.