Black and White in Color
This was the first feature film for Jean-Jacques Annaud, who went on to be a notable director. It was filmed entirely in Africa, in the very places where the almost true story happened. Certain details were changed for dramatic and comic purposes.
It is 1915, in French Colonial Africa. Back then the Frenchies controlled massive parts of the continent, including the Cote d’Ivoire. Right next door was Cameroon, which was run by the Bosch. There is a French fort on one side of the border, and a German one a few miles away. Calling them forts is where the comedy begins. The French one is manned by one actual soldier, a sergeant who sleeps the day away. The German one is not much better. News gets to that part of the world slowly, so it is many months before the French learn that they have been at war with Germany since last August. Almost all the French civilians are immediately caught up in a patriotic fervor, and insist the sergeant attach the Germans. At once!
The poor man enlists a ragtag army of locals, maybe fifty of them, none of whom speak French, none of whom know what the fuck is going on, but seem happy to march off with the dozen rifles the fort has, and a lot of spears. All the whites in town follow, most of them in sedan chairs hauled by eight black men. They settle down for a picnic within sight of the German fort, and watch as the army charges up the hill.
But those treacherous Krauts knew about the war, too, and have prepared. They have a machine gun, and they have dug hidden pits with sharp stakes at the bottom. As the machine gun rattles and the native “troops” start to hobble back, bleeding from bullet and stake wounds, the whites hastily gather up the champagne and chicken and beat feet back to the fort, leaving the natives to die in the harsh sunlight. And they suddenly are all in favor of surrendering.
It’s impossible to watch this farce without laughing (except at the poor wounded and dead men, of course), but it is very bitter laughter. These strutting, posturing, pompous, ignorant … if it was me, I’d gladly line up all the white people but one against a wall and machine gun them, particularly one shopkeeper who cares far more for his stock than for any people. The one exception is a student stranded in this place, who has actually read a few books on military strategy. He wasn’t in favor of attacking at all, but since they are now at war and in danger, he takes over the defense and the offence.
Many more things happen before a British contingent of Gurkhas marches in and basically takes things over and enforces a cease-fire and surrender of the German contingent. The officer in charge should have spanked them all. And now everyone is happy and peaceful again, as they were before the fevered civilians caused so much suffering.
If there is anything I hate more than a colonialist, it is a missionary colonialist, there to rescue these benighted niggers from their ignorance of the Word of God and the Mercy of Sweet Jesus and the Holy Virgin. There are two of them here. I wanted to kill them instantly, shoot them right out of their sedan chairs. But they were good for a joke or two. The bearers are singing a song, and one of the priests says that he loves it. The sub-titled lyrics are things like “My white man is an asshole,” and “My white man has stinky feet.” There are other trenchant translations from the native people. This is a brutal satire, an indictment of all war, a terrific film.
The film was premiered in France … and was an epic flop. They sold 900 tickets. 900 tickets! But then Cote d’Ivoire took it to America, and the AMPAS awarded it the Best Foreign Language Oscar. Suddenly they were on the map! Made a lot of money, and enabled the director to move on to other movies.