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Savant Review:


Lost Command
Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment
1966 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 128 min. / Street Date June 25, 2002 / $24.95
Starring Anthony Quinn, Alain Delon, George Segal, Michèle Morgan, Maurice Ronet, Claudia Cardinale, Grègoire Aslan, Jean Servais
Cinematography Robert Surtees
Art Direction John Stoll
Film Editor Dorothy Spencer
Original Music Franz Waxman
Written by Nelson Gidding from the novel The Centurions by Jean Lartéguy
Produced by Mark Robson, John R. Sloan
Directed by Mark Robson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

What probably was received as nothing special in 1966 plays as a major head-scratcher today: Lost Command is a perfect precursor to modern-day action films that make political subjects into strange melodramas, replacing relevant issues with personal conflicts. Practically a replay of the subject matter of the previous year's quasi-docu The Battle of Algiers, this by-the-numbers studio film covers historical territory untouched by any other commercial movie - France's efforts to retain Vietnam and Algeria as colonies in the 1950s.


Dien Bien Phu falls to the Viet Minh, and aggressive peasant-turned-officer Lt. Col. Pierre Raspeguy (Anthony Quinn), cultured Captain Phillipe Esclavier (Alain Delon) and French Algerian Mahidi (George Segal) are imprisoned for six months. Back in France, the unfairly disgraced Raspeguy meets and woos a general's widow, the Countess de Clairefons (Michèle Morgan), who uses her connections to arrange a plum assignment for him - command of the paratroops sent to put down revolt in Algeria. All of Pierre's cohorts sign on, except for Mahidi, who becomes a rebel general. It's Raspeguy's last chance at honor and promotion - France doesn't want to lose yet another colony - and his soldiers waste no time using torture to extract information. As he has no stomach for this kind of warfare, Captain Esclavier serves rather reluctantly, but unfortunately, he takes up with young Aicha, (Claudia Cardinale), who poses as a prostitute but is really a hardcore rebel agent - and the sister of his old friend Mahidi.

Lost Command is interesting, despite the fact that it's not a very good movie. It, Sam Fuller's China Gate, and John Wayne's The Green Berets are perhaps the only pre -'70s movies about war in Indochina (does The 7th Dawn count?), and it's no less confused than they are. As a battle epic, it's competently made, and nothing more.

Director Mark Robson seems to have been chosen for his ability to fashion sprawling soap operas like Peyton Place, and directorially the film is dull. It's also unimpressive in production areas - the lighting is flat, the costumes are off the rack, and the Spanish facilities and Franco troops  1 create a very arid-looking Dien Bien Phu. The Almería locations make rural Algeria the spittin' image of Sergio Leone's West - the Italian director must have been shooting with Clint Eastwood at the same place near the same time. But the recreation of Algiers streets in Spain is very impressive.

In 1966, as the artistic world was becoming mildly radicalized (definition: only enough to express the hipness of what was coined 'radical-chic'), Lost Command was dismissed as a dumb war movie, while The Battle of Algiers was praised as documentary truth. They're a strange pair, for they cover much of the same ground. Gillo Pontecorvo's ode to Marxist revolution does its best to pretend to be impartial, but in vain. We can feel the filmmakers exult in the fervor of the rebels, and hiss the Nazi-like French paratroops, from frame one. The most eye-opening thing about The Battle of Algiers is the flat, matter-of-fact way that its professional soldiers attend to the business of large scale torture. The myth that evil war-making, torture and inhumanity were qualities practiced only by Hitler's fanatics fades fast, when we hear the paratroop commander state his aims and his means in plain terms: If you want to win a war against rebels who use bombs and murder instead of meeting on the battlefield, you can't follow rules. The lesson of Algiers was that modern military might is used mostly to suppress one's own civilian populations for political reasons, and not for conflict between nations.

Lost Command takes the identical circumstances, in almost every detail (historically, it's fairly accurate), and tells the story from a disinterested American point of view, interpreting a jingoistic French potboiler novel. In 1966, as the Vietnam war is revving into high gear, the was the only American movie to tackle subject matter relevant to our massive national effort in Southeast Asia. Yet Lost Command stifles itself to make sure that nothing 'political' surfaces.

Dien Bien Phu falls to Ho Chi Minh's fighters only because (according to Lost Command) the French fail to adequately resupply the garrison. The struggle isn't about the Vietnamese at all, it's just about the French failure to properly hold on to its own territory. You know, French Indochina, that 19th Century colony, that like all the rest, fought the Japanese invaders alongside the Allies in WW2, with the promise of independence after victory. The last defenders parachute in with high esprit de corps, and are happily shot to pieces before ultimately surrendering. Then we get a few scenes of the happy Frenchmen sassing a moronic Viet officer, who harangues them with Maoist blather while they grin and pull pranks. Pretty gutsy pranks, too, considering that their captors are shooting them for simple rowdyness. Their repatriation shows similar 'Gunga Din' military irreverence. Instead of a hero's welcome they're coldly met and told to take delousing baths. Naturally, the earthy commando Pierre Raspeguy has his men tear up the place instead.

In what would be a perfect Tom Cruise - Top Gun turn of events, Raspeguy's military insouciance is quietly admired by his superiors. Back in France, we get to the soft center of Lost Command. Raspeguy is a man's man, but he's from peasant stock, folk who live in a run-down (but idyllic) French countryside and fear God, but still smuggle things in and out of Spain the same way they used to smuggle resistance fighters. Pierre shouldn't have a chance against the snobbery of the Army, but his new buddy, the elitist military historian Esclavier, points him to a fresh army widow who's got clout. She's from the uppity-but-moldy aristocracy, and points out portraits of her military ancestors ("This one fought with Napoleon") as if she had been mistress to them all. Raspeguy attends the funeral with an invisible 'I'm available' sign hung from his neck, beds the widow, and, voila, he's got a new command. His former cohorts rally round like it's poker night, making small talk about, "Time to find a new war, the wife's getting on my nerves", etc. Even the slightly snooty Esclavier comes along, to play with the boys even though they're not in his intellectual league.

In Algeria, things get really weird. In The Battle of Algiers, the frustrated police force, tired of being victimized by hit'n run assassins, blow up an entire apartment block to escalate the violence and get the attention of the negligent colonial office. Lost Command starts almost identically, with Raspeguy's professional combatants brushing aside the colonial cops and pushing the conflict hard and fast. The local politicos are seen as incompetent or corrupt.

The merits of the rebellion in Algeria are never really commented on. There are bombers in the city and guerilla units in the desert. But the main thrust is personal, not political. Ex-paratrooper Mahidi (played by a brown-faced George Segal with what I think is a dubbed voice, surely the least appropriate casting of the decade) has transformed himself from apolitical soldier to mysterious rebel commander, and his sister is a top infiltration agent, thanks to her ability to look 'European'. Of course, instead of the Casbah women in Algiers who disturbingly don makeup and wigs to deliver bombs to kill civilians, our agent is Claudia Cardinale, and we have the fun of seeing her flirt with Alain Delon, while fooling him.

Lost Command is more accurate than The Battle of Algiers when it shows the French having military successes against the rebels in desert skirmishes. The paratroops won battles outside the cities without much difficulty. In the city, they resort to torture - the same electric shock devices are used in both films - but where Algiers shows torture as a systematic police tool, Lost Command never comes to grips with the issue. First, Raspeguy's enraged troops murder a number of Arab men in retaliation for the slaughter of three of their own. 'Enthusiastic' officers begin torturing for information, behind Raspeguy's back. Esclavier objects but is overruled when the ambitious Raspeguy realizes that torture gets results; and the end comes with --- (spoiler) --- Raspeguy getting his big promotion to general while Esclavier resigns in protest. War is tough, the show seems to say, and there's no room for questioning or hesitancy. The boistrous Anthony Quinn and his paratroop roughnecks are those 'nasty but necessary' guys who take care of the dirty details in colonial management.

As a war thriller, Lost Command is pretty much by the book, and won't have much to excite modern action fans. The cast is very attractive (if you overlook poor George Segal), and Quinn is rather good and athletic in a very convincing middle-aged way. Spaghetti Western fans will notice several familiar faces, including the ubiquitous Aldo Sambrell. The yellow peril is represented, of course, by Burt Kwouk, who was the 1960's favorite Asian hate representative, when not playing Kato in The Pink Panther films.

Columbia TriStar's Lost Command is a very good-looking 16:9 transfer, from elements that are clearly in fine shape. This one must have been prepped a while ago, because it has five language subtitle choices. Unfortunately, there's only the one English-language track. It would have been interesting to see if a French alternate gives the film a little more of a realistic feel.  2

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Lost Command rates:
Movie: Fair+
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailers
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: June 18, 2002


1. now there's an irony, Fascist Spain provides backdrop for a French colonial saga ... the Franco politicos must have been more comfortable with that than recreating the Russian revolution for Dr. Zhivago.

2. This is the recommended way to watch the 1998 Man in the Iron Mask, which plays horribly in English but is rather cool in French!

3.  A welcome note from 'B', aka "woggly":

Dear Glenn: In discussing a quite interesting sounding movie upon which I am drawing a complete and total blank...

[Anthony Quinn? Mark Robson? George Segal as a dubbed guy named "Mahidi"? Claudia Cardinale's in the movie but her name's not on the box? (nothing wrong with Morgan; I'm not an idiot) Music by Franz Waxman? FRANZ WAXMAN? He was dead by the time this sucker was made!* You made this movie up! Wait, it isn't April.] bring up the point that EVERYONE brings up about Pontecorvo's THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS: that it was released in 1965. That is correct. It was released in parts of Europe in 1965. It was slowly released in other parts of Europe over the following few years. [It won the Golden Lion at Venice in '66.] But it premiered in the United States at the NY Film Festival in the Fall of 1967; I remember the reviews, but I did look it up. Rizzoli distributed it domestically; it slowly made its way across the country in late '67 and through 1968. Someone was shrewd enough to get it to LA so it could qualify for the 1967 Best Foreign Film Oscar; it was the Official Italian entry and received the nomination (it didn't win). This movie set me on fire when I saw it in '68 and I have never forgotten it. [I've also never forgotten getting into a major shouting match with someone as to whether it was "a documentary" or "fictional." Please.] As Academy rules at that time specified that a film eligible for the Foreign Film Award one year would be eligible for all other Awards the following year, the long arthouse runs and great reviews of ALGIERS paid off in a way: In 1968, Pontecorvo became one of a handful of directors of foreign films ever to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar, and Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas were nominated for their original screenplay. Not bad for a 1965 movie. [All right, they didn't win, but they already had a deal with UA.]

Maybe the dvd has some info on this, but I don't know whether BATTLE had any influence on Robson and Nelson Gidding, particularly as they were working from a pre-existing source; I don't know whether it was finished in time -- even in Europe -- to have influence. I also wonder whether Robson was chosen to direct or if he chose the material himself; he was a moderately powerful director and occasional producer/ director at the time and had worked with Gidding before -- as had his pal Robert Wise. I wish Robson's films were better; his work for Lewton was superior and some of his 'fifties work with strong material is very good.

For the record, Marshall Thompson starred and directed a 1964 war film titled A YANK IN VIET-NAM that was actually filmed in Vietnam! AA handled it. There was at least one other very, very low budget movie -- can't think of the title -- that also looked at Indochina, but neither film came out after things really got out of hand. Best, Always.

-- B

* Well, my thinking was right, even if I was wrong; it was the last theatrical feature he scored.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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