"History my butt. It was a military foul up."
Anthony Quinn (Zorba the Greek) as a French military commander squares off against George Segal (Just Shoot Me) as an Algerian terrorist in this 1960s war drama? Odd casting and eerie similarities to recent military and political conflicts in the Middle East make this film a little difficult to digest. [Editor's Note: And wouldn't a French military commander just surrender right away? Where's the drama?]
Facts of the Case
Hard nosed and authority defiant Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Raspeguy (Quinn) does all he can to salvage a futile military engagement in Indochina. Reinforcements arrive too late, as the battalion is defeated and captured by Vietnamese forces. Three months later, as the armistice is signed, Raspeguy and co. are informed their unit is being disbanded. What's more, the impertinent Lt. Colonel is headed for forced retirement. Returning to France and romancing a recently widowed French countess, Raspeguy is given one last chance to redeem his career commanding a rag tag unit of military rejects against a well organized group of Algerian terrorists fighting for their independence from French occupation.
I'll be the first to admit I'm not a huge fan of military films, especially when the spectacular battle scenes are used to cover for a poorly written or otherwise uninteresting script. In this case, Nelson Gidding's screenplay is based on the acclaimed novel "The Centurions" by author Jean Larteguy. Grounded in historical fact, the film has been noted for its historical and military accuracy, playing well to audiences of military personnel and war film enthusiasts. To an objective observer, such as myself, however, the 130-minute film comes across as long, drawn out, and contrived.
The opening battle sequence, which must have been the Saving Private Ryan of its day, is used to introduce our protagonist, Raspeguy, and his supporting cast—Captain Esclavier (Alain Delon), Captain Boisfeuras (Maurice Ronet), Merle (Maurice Sarfati), Orsini (Jean-Claude Bercq), and Mahidi (George Segal). Unfortunately for the audience, the main plot doesn't begin to take shape until after the original unit is disbanded (30 minutes into the film) and even then doesn't reach full speed until Raspeguy and co. settle into their near impossible assignment in Algiers (70 minute mark). It's unusual and unnecessary for an action/adventure or war film to contain this much exposition. However, the story is not without its merits. The inhumanity shown by French occupation forces towards the Algerian people illustrates the continued shameful history of one ethnic or religious group's need to dominate and control what they deem to be lower class or less worthy groups, who in most cases are natives of the land in dispute. Right or wrong, the situation gives rise to the rebellious factions who will fight to the death for their freedom, usually at the cost of countless innocent lives. Lost Command shows the ultimate consequences of these actions, when otherwise good people are forced to make difficult and sometimes horrific decisions. It's too bad director Mark Robson (Peyton Place, Earthquake) failed to realize he could have made the same point in 90 minutes.
In terms of performances, Quinn shines as the tough but flawed career soldier. But a Frenchman? I don't think so (Peter Sellers was more convincing as Inspector Clouseau), especially when his inner command circle is played by a group of talented French actors. The individual supporting performances are good, specifically Alain Delon as the reluctant Capt. Esclavier and Maurice Ronet as the overzealous Capt. Boisfeuras. Unfortunately, their performances suffer as similar physical features make it difficult to tell them apart—"wait, was that the nice guy or the jerk?" George Segal is the furthest from believable as the Algerian rebel leader Mahidi, coming across as a "B" Hollywood actor with a really deep tan. Claudia Cardinale (Pink Panther) steps in briefly as Mahidi's sister, an Algerian Mata Hari, who can't decide whether she is a devious and deadly adversary or helpless damsel in distress. Speaking of Pink Panther, Burt Kwouk (Cato) makes a brief appearance as the Viet commander responsible for the capture of Raspeguy's men. All in all, an uneven, if not unusual, cast.
As for the physical evidence, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and Dolby 2.0 audio track are a giant leap beyond the previous VHS release and the rare appearance of the film on network or cable television. The film is clean and crisp, most noticeably in the battle sequences, where the audio also comes alive, capturing the gunfire and explosions as well as the musical score of legendary composer Franz Waxman (Bride of Frankenstein). Theatrical trailers for Lost Command and Guns of Navarrone are a nice touch, but the only extras included on this disc.
A bloated script and poor casting choices tarnish the shine of this otherwise interesting and timely subject matter. For fans of the film and the genre I can only recommend a rental and nothing more.
This court finds Lost Command guilty of missing the mark on what could have been a powerful message film on the savage inhumanity of mankind. This court now stands in recess.
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