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Jean-Jacques Annaud's first feature is a delightfully warped black comedy about colonial hijinks in French Equatorial Africa, circa 1915. It not only deflates all the usual clichés about whites lording it over the 'natives', but deftly creates a universal critique of all things colonial: arrogance, racism, folly.
It's actually shot and staged very straight; the events are an amalgam of separate similar incidents that happened all over Africa when World War One broke out. It isn't The African Queen, that's for sure.
The Germans are actually prepared, and the Frenchmen's picnic war turns out to be a slaughter. Running back in disarray, the French cower and hope the Germans will be kind when they retaliate. But the supposedly timid botanist steps in, takes control, and organizes a defense by entreating the local tribal chief into kidnapping soldiers from other tribes to replace the natives that have been left to die on the field. Assuming a superior social position, the botanist now high-hands his compatriots, takes a native concubine and prepares for all-out war.
The tone is hilariously set (in what sounds like a grim tale) when we see a group of natives transporting the lazy whites in homemade Palanquins. The natives sing one of those hearty native work-songs as they carry their 'superiors', but the subtitles translate exactly what they're singing: "The fool we carry is fat as a pig", "But our guy's feet smell like dung".
The colonials are mostly obnoxious clods who would be ignored back in France. They consider the civilized, agreeable and tolerant natives to be animals, redubbing them with good French names at will. The corrupt priests teach them condescending lessons, saying that no black can be as good as a white, but can better himself by imitating the white man. Then they get a half-dozen natives killed, and wonder why no more volunteer for service.
The equally crooked merchants start hoarding food as soon as they're threatened, and bully the poor sergeant into demeaning, foolish actions. They're the ones who demand that the Germans be expunged, not an hour after greeting them at their store as friends. As for the young, cleanliness-obsessed botanist, he seems like a good pacifist alternative, until he smells power. Organizing more doom for more natives (who do all the suffering in the picture), he sets up trench warfare outside the German fortress.
It's hard to describe the peculiarly funny tone of the show. The actors are all compelling, but there is certainly no single hero. The village is more of a microcosm of French folly, or perhaps Colonial folly in general. The Germans are more organized, and at least willing to fight with their native troops. And the English we see (a regiment of natives led by a jolly-good Indian Gurkha) are even more ruthlessly set on grabbing new territory for their Queen.
Annaud and his co-writer Georges Conchon respect their characters, even the French, too sufficiently to call Black and White in Color a simple lampoon. Everything is amusing, if only because the selfish, jingoistic and cowardly attitudes of the bourgeoisie abroad seem such a universal statement. Less lavish than Annaud's later films (The Bear, The Lover, Quest for Fire). Black and White in Color is a bawdy comedy of colonial manners with an acidic touch.
Home Vision Entertainment's DVD of Black and White in Color is a stunningly handsome 16:9 transfer of a prime element in fine condition. The audio is clear and the subtitles easy to read and well-timed to make the frequent jokes work without getting in the way.
The film is accompanied by two interviews from the director and producer Arthur Cohn explaining how the crazy film came to be (Annaud became fascinated by these mini-wars that paralleled the Great War being fought back home). It was apparently considered an unreleaseable fiasco until a second editor was brought in for a recut (hope they're being fair to the first editor). Annaud's interview is done right in the middle of an African village where he's shooting something unidentified. An essay by Ronald Falzone adds an third perspective to the makers' opinions.
Black and White in Color is certainly long enough to stand alone on the disc, but HVe has included as a separate extra, an entire additional feature (88 minutes), 1961's The Sky Above, the Mud Below. It won an Oscar that year for best documentary and is an account of a trek into central New Guinea to seek out primitive headhunters. They find them, and record reels of primitive rituals, but don't have much meaningful communication. It's in color and stresses the dangers and risks taken by the explorers, even though they rely on natives to do most of the hard work, and radio for supplies and assistance at every turn. The sales pitch originally had an almost 'Mondo' appeal - it reportedly cleaned up in theaters, as explained by producer Arthur Cohn.
The quality on the second feature is quite good. It is the Embassy pictures English-language version, which is perhaps why it isn't being given a disc of its own, but the only dialogue is the voiceover. Not bad for a 'throwaway' extra.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Black and White in Color rates: