Netflix is creating an ever-increasing amount of content, much of which is both popular and critically acclaimed.
One fairly recent addition is The Siege of Jadotville, which turned out to be both a decent watch and an interesting subject for a film treatment.
The film is based on the book The Siege at Jadotville: The Irish Army’s Forgotten Battle, from 2005. It concerns an action of an Irish light infantry company under UN command in the Republic of the Congo in 1961. [Spoiler alert] The Irish were isolated at an outpost in Jadotville, facing attacks from a much larger force. The unit eventually surrendered and its men were taken hostage. The commandant (equivalent to the rank of major) initially refused surrender despite the overwhelming odds but, eventually, gave in after having expended nearly all of his supplies, including ammunition and food.
The movie portrays how the unwillingness of the UN command to come to the aid of the Jadotville meant that the Irish ultimately had to choose between surrender or a pointless death. The action was downplayed by both the UN and the Irish government. In 2004, a retired soldier who had fought at Jadotville succeeded in a campaign to obtain recognition for the veterans of this battle. The Irish Defense Ministry reviewed the circumstances of the battle, cleared the commandant and company of any misconduct, and paved the way for positive recognition by the Irish government.
The story provides an interesting background for the movie. It is a conflict that many viewers likely know little about and uses facts that are only coming fully to light now, half a century later. Far from being simply a story about an isolated firefight in an obscure corner of the globe, the action was actually at the center of world politics for that time.
Following the withdrawal of the Belgian government from Congo, the country fell into chaos. Said chaos included several regions attempting to establish independent countries. The UN deployed peacekeepers to the Congo but, feeling that Western support for the new nation was insufficient, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Congo, Patrice Lumumba, sought aid from the Soviet Union. The civil war thus became a focus for the cold war itself, including the risk of an escalation that would draw in the Soviets and the United States
The movie begins with the execution of Lumumba and also includes the crash that killed UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld. It also discusses the politics at the UN that lead to the UN become more and more involved in the Congolese civil wars. The film is not shy about showing declaratively the details of events which remain controversial. The portrayal of the UN is also less than flattering, suggesting that the self-interest of the organization trumped fulfillment of its stated mission.
The movie is entertaining to watch, although perhaps repeating a common theme. The small band of brothers outgunned and outnumbered fighting against the odds. Of course, being largely a true story, it’s tough to accuse it of merely rehashing some other film. The quality of the acting, writing, and direction put it on par with the current movies of the genre and elevate above, for example, the pre-Private Ryan war movies of the 70s.
While it was, in fact, released to theaters briefly before being available on Netflix, it isn’t exactly a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. As such, it risks the “small world” problem I’ve written about here before. In my opinion, this film solved it adequately. While there are a few scenes where the use of CGI to increase the number of on-screen combatants shows through, for the most part the film limits the focus. One obvious trick is that while, several times, the company defending Jadotville is described to be around 150 soldiers, the total number of actors for the Irish never exceeds around 25-30. The approach works well enough to keep the movie working. It just has to be recognized that what is portrayed on screen is a scaled-down representation of the actual events.
I’ve not read the book, but nearly every adaptation of a full-length book to a feature-length movie involves condensing and cutting the action. This film, obviously, is no exception. Events before and after the battle are simplified so as to create a coherent narrative. One measure of any dramatization of a historic event is that a good film, while incomplete in its historical treatment, encourages the viewer to look deeper into the “true” history. This worked on me: I’m writing this article.
One last point of interest. The “mercenaries” are represented by a portrayal of French Foreign Legion veteran René Faulques. In the story, he represents a number of mercenary commanders that were sent in by the Belgians and other Westerners to defend their interests against the communists by assisting the separatist movements. It is unclear to me whether Faulques was even present at the battle, much less involved as a central figure. Nevertheless, he probably was at one or more of the battles described in my previous entry, as he was a Lieutenant in the 1er Bataillon Etranger de Parachutistes during the conflict in Indochina.
Small world, indeed.