I've always been something of a sucker for Foreign Legion movies, and imperialistic adventure movies in general. I know that this is an ideological weakness, but none the less. They don't make these films any more, partially because, believe it or not, most Hollywood moviemakers are liberals and don't approve of imperialism. Of course, poor box office and the fact that you might as well not bother releasing it outside of North America and Europe also play their part. Fort Saganne, a French film, is something of an anomaly, then. It tries to hedge its bets by taking on a mildly disapproving view of it all, but this attitude doesn't really wash. Fort Saganne isn't quite a Foreign Legion movie, since it deals with French Colonial troops rather than the Legion, but most of the bag and baggage of the old sand dune specials is there: marauding Arabs, the desperate stand against the hordes, march or die, and so forth. Fort Saganne definitely aspires to be an epic, both in scope and length (3 hours). It doesn't quite make it, but it's pretty good fun throughout.
The story is set in the early 20th century, mostly in the French Sahara colonies. Lieutenant Saganne (Gerard Depardieu), a brilliant young officer of peasant background, begins to make a name for himself in the more civilized areas of the colonies. Phillipe Noiret, as the colonel who has near total authority over the entire Sahara region, takes him along on a mission deep into the desert, where they must persuade some bolting tribes to return to French territory. Eventually, though the leader of the largest of the tribes is persuaded, a younger chieftain takes his followers off into the deepest desert, and Saganne is detailed to pursue him and convince him to return. This adventure, taking up the first half of the film, is the most exciting and overall best part of the film. It is also the most intellectually interesting, for it is here that Fort Saganne makes a stab at saying something about colonialism. It's not a very deep statement and is unlikely to butter many parsnips with Arabs, but at least it's an attempt. Here also we get to see Saganne maturing through his contact with the desert and responsibility, which is the only character development in the film that has any depth.
Saganne returns a hero and is bundled off to France to drum up support for a campaign to destroy the hostile tribes south of the colonies' border. Here we get a dreary subplot involving Saganne's brother, who wishes to make a career-destroying marriage. Saganne himself is rather in danger that way, as he and the daughter of the aristocratic governor of the Sahara have become infatuated with each other, a prospect which sits poorly with the girl's parents. Saganne has an affair with a lady journalist (Catherine Deneuve) before returning to more Saharan heroics. The film ends up in the fields of France during the First World War, where the native colonial troops from North Africa fight and die for the French. Fort Saganne gets much less from this situation than one might expect, which makes me doubt the sincerity of the lackadaisical anti-imperialism message that it toyed with earlier. If the film can't get really angry and self-righteous about this abuse of colonial power, I must doubt the depths of the filmmakers' convictions.
Alain Corneau, the director, does a competent job, treading rather heavily in the footsteps of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. The pace is never very rapid, but it's not too slow either. Corneau does blow his big battle scene by building to a climax too soon (he should have watched Zulu a few times before staging it), he has trouble differentiating some of the supporting characters, and he doesn't tie things together too neatly. In a few places, the film has a surprisingly hurried feel, especially considering the dawdling it does in some other places. Corneau, Henri de Turenne, and Louis Gardel adapted a French novel into the script, and a few novelistic touches, largely inappropriate, remain. A more thorough pruning could easily have eliminated an unnecessary half hour from Fort Saganne, and it's a pity this wasn't done.
The wide screen photography is quite lovely, though it also owes something to Lawrence of Arabia. Corneau and his cinematographer, Bruno Nuytten, make good use of the wide screen format to display the vast emptiness of the desert. Corneau and Nuytten also pull a few good tricks for some of the action sequences. Phillipe Sarde provided the score, which is centered around a single lovely and surprisingly versatile melody.
Depardieu makes a very fine hero. Saganne isn't a part that's particularly difficult to play, but it does require an inner strength suggestive of true heroism, and Depardieu provides that quite well. Noiret is fine, as usual, as the Colonel who understands the desert and its people. His disappearance from the latter half of the film leaves little for Depardieu to play off of. Deneuve's part is brief and essentially dispensable. Sophie Marceau is beautiful and convincing as the love of Depardieu's life, but the effect she actually has on Saganne isn't made too clear.
The program for Filmex described Fort Saganne as having "wide commercial appeal", and that's as good a description of the film as any. Fort Saganne is usually entertaining and occasionally striking and even powerful (particularly in an amputation scene that is quite grisly without being explicit). I doubt if it will do big business in Tunisia, say, or Morocco, but it should do quite nicely in the US. Why, if everyone weren't talking in French, it might even be a Hollywood movie! Expect it out within the next year. If you don't have terribly strong feelings about colonialism, its romanticism and adventure will probably entertain you. If you do have strong feelings, you can spend a wonderful three hours thinking up sizzling flames to direct at it. Either way, you should have some fun.
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