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Brave but compromised
on 20 December 2009
Mark Robson's ambitious Lost Command is one of those films that has all the right intentions and a formidable array of talent but doesn't quite get it right. It's bold subject matter for a Hollywood epic - the increasingly unwinnable French war to hold onto its colony in Algeria after their humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu led to them losing Vietnam, something even the French didn't want to see movies about - but in its need to make an unpalatable war palatable to a mainstream audience it never quite gets the balance right.
Things start promisingly enough with the French flag being blown up and paratroopers landing in a minefield at Dien Bien Phu (a scene largely thrown away behind the opening credits) before being captured by the Vietnaminh and being released in disgrace. His regiment disbanded, Anthony Quinn's Colonel Raspeguy, a working class Basque soldier who worked his way up through the ranks but is still regarded as a useful animal and an even more useful scapegoat by his superiors, finds himself without a command unless he's willing to take a brigade of outcasts to Algeria to end the insurrection by any means necessary. Naturally, once there he discovers that the leader of the rebels is one of his former paratroopers while his two Captains take very different approaches to dealing with the locals as the atrocities on both sides start to escalate.
Knowing his right-wing political views, Alain Delon is curious casting as the conscience of the film, the unit's military historian, though he has more to work with than Maurice Ronet's brutally pragmatic moral opposite number, but, not being able to tempt Omar Sharif to play the role, there's a disastrous bit of miscasting as the Algerian paratrooper-turned-FLN leader: George Segal with cocoa beans smeared on his face doing what sounds like Peter Sellers' Indian doctor routine before veering off into a bad Welsh accent. Still known as a dramatic actor at the time, he does his best but he's no more convincing as an Arab than Sharif was as a Nazi in Night of the Generals. You can only guess what Tunisian-born-and-raised Claudia Cardinale thought as his onscreen sister...
As a retelling of then recent events, it covers most of the bases - the `Lizards' torture suspects and kill villagers in reprisals (albeit offscreen) while the rebels use women to bomb soft civilian targets - and it ends on a note of moral abdication from one character and a note of solidarity for the rebels from another (more in sympathetic thought than deed), but it's a film that seems as torn as Delon's character as to quite what it wants to be or believe in, falling into a no man's land as part old-fashioned studio war movie, part underdeveloped political/moral drama. The Spanish locations don't always convince, especially with the desert standing in for the jungles of Vietnam (complete with Cantonese-speaking Burt Kwouk as a Vietnaminh officer) while Franz Waxman's score veers more to the Spanish bullrings than the French legions or Algiers casbah. It's certainly a brave film to make in 1966, but compared to the power and immediacy of Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers that's not quite enough to make it more than just worth a look.
No extras but a mostly acceptable 2.35:1 widescreen transfer, a couple of variable scenes notwithstanding.