First Run Features // 1995 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // July 14th, 2006
Industrialist, adventurer, playboy...traitor?
In 1934, French-born American entrepreneur Charles Bedaux set out on a lavish expedition into the Canadian Rockies. The purpose of the journey was to explore then uncharted areas of British Columbia, to field test a new half-track truck manufactured by Citroen, and to generate a ton of publicity for Bedaux, who fancied himself an adventurer and raconteur. In addition to the Citroens, Bedaux carted along limousines, geographers, geologists, surveyors, over 100 horses, an army of cowboys to perform the expedition's grunt work, and cases of luxuries like champagne, caviar, and foie gras. Also along for the ride was Hollywood cinematographer Floyd Crosby (High Noon). Crosby was tasked with shooting the expedition so that Bedaux could later piece together a movie. The film subsequently disappeared, only to be discovered in a Paris basement decades later.
The fascinating (if worn) found footage is the backbone of this documentary, filmmaker George Ungar's examination of both Bedaux's famed subarctic expedition, and his uneasy connection to Germany's Third Reich. Ungar makes Bedaux's expedition from Edmonton into the wilds of Canada the crux of The Champagne Safari because of the compelling footage it yielded, and because it is a potent symbol of Bedaux's lavish self-aggrandizing and blind certainty of his own dominion over all that he surveyed. Ungar is far more interested, though, in Bedaux's confused politics. Specifically, he reads Bedaux's repellant errors in judgment with regard to the Nazis as a cautionary tale for the increasingly global economy of the 21st century. If profit is all that matters, moral confusion is bound to set in during real international crises.
Bedaux made his fortune as a management consultant whose efficiency model revolutionized the assembly line and practically created the management structure in corporate business today. His system of measuring production also angered workers enough to strengthen America's labor movement and provide inspiration for René Clair's À Nous la Liberté and Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, both anti-capitalist films. Bedaux's company -- headquartered in the Chrysler Building in New York -- was multi-national, with representatives all over America and Europe. Bedaux fancied himself apolitical, loyal to economy over ideology. The message of Ungar's film is that no such luxury exists in the real world. "I wish to go neither left nor right. I wish to go forward" was a motto of sorts for Bedaux, but one that crumbled under the rise of fascism leading up to World War II. As the Third Reich began nationalizing German industry, Bedaux and his executives found themselves rubbing elbows with Nazis in order to maintain control of their own business. That Bedaux seems not to have found anything particularly repellant about Hitler's regime is the most disturbing aspect of his legacy.
If Ungar's compelling portrait of Bedaux has a deficiency, it's in the way he minimizes Communists' role in the drama. Bedaux sponsored Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor's public relations trip to Germany, during which the former Prince of Wales sadly propped up Hitler and his regime. When Bedaux tried to arrange a similar tour through American, the idea was met with violent hostility by factory workers disgusted by the dehumanizing nature of Bedaux's efficiency models. Ungar would have us believe that the American resistance to Bedaux and Edward VIII was an organic uprising of the common worker even though the vintage anti-Bedaux posters and newspaper advertisements are loaded with Marxist boilerplate suggesting a carefully organized campaign by American communist groups. This is a minor quibble, though, as Ungar does make clear that a fear of aggressive Soviet communism was at least partially responsible for Bedaux's moral blindness (and bankruptcy) regarding Nazi Germany. Still, the idea of the morally vacuous and ethically utilitarian Bedaux being lost in the fog of two competing evil ideologies is thematically complex, rich in irony, and not fully explored by Ungar.
The DVD presentation of The Champagne Safari is decent but unremarkable. This has more to do with the quality of the various source materials than with the transfer itself. Crosby's expedition footage is in rough shape, but still fascinating to watch. Even Ungar's interview footage -- now a decade old -- sports minor damage and a fair amount of grain. The full frame presentation is in keeping with the picture's original aspect ratio.
The stereo presentation of the film's original soundtrack is also serviceable if unremarkable.
Onboard supplements include an essay called "Charles Bedaux & 'The Champagne Expedition'" by Murray Lundberg from his Explore North web site (linked in the "Accomplices" section of this review), a photo gallery of 10 stills, and a brief biography of Ungar. Though the DVD's keepcase doesn't list it among the supplements, Ungar's bio contains a link to a 60-second animated short called "Being Ben." Ungar (who was an animator on Heavy Metal) created the piece to appear as a brief fantasy sequence in a feature called The Prayer Book.
There are also trailers for First Run Features releases With God on Our Side, S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, Hell on Wheels, and The Goebbels Experiment.
The Champagne Safari is a fascinating examination of a larger-than-life figure, as well as a sophisticated cautionary tale about the moral dangers of worshipping mammon. This court finds it not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Essay on the Champagne Expedition
* Photo Gallery
* Director Biography
* "Being Ben" Animated Short
* Trailer Gallery
* Explore North Site