War Movies 6: “The Lost Command.”

Jean Pierre Lucien Osty (1920-2011) came from a French-peasant-moved-to-Paris background.  War became a central experience of his life: he served in the French Army at the start of the Second World War; then escaped from Vichy France to North Africa by way of Spain; and fought in Italy and France.  Earning an officer’s commission, he then served in the Far East, including a stint in Korea.  Then he became a war correspondent.  His experiences provided the basis for a string of book, published under the pen-name of Jean Larteguy.  One of these books was the novel The Centurions (1963), about the war in Algeria.

The Centurions became a huge best-seller in France, then was translated into English and had a wide readership in the United States as well, many of those readers were Army Special Forces officers.  Larteguy sold the movie rights to the book to Americans.

The book is sprawling as it tries to cover a half-decade of complex action.  Nelson Giddings, who wrote the screenplay, and his frequent collaborator Mark Robson,[1] who directed the movie as “Lost Command” (1966), had to greatly simplify the story for a two-hour movie.  It is a classic statement of the American liberal anti-Communist point of view.  They shot the movie in Spain because they could find there the same dry, scrubby Mediterranean countryside and the European looking cities that prevailed in Algeria.  (Thank you Fernand Braudel for the insight.)  Also, labor costs were low under a right-wing dictatorship, and that met a pressing concern for progressive people making a movie about the evils of oppressive government.

Basically, it is a very conventional war movie, dressed up with some awareness of current issues.  It has standard stock characters: Colonel Pierre Raspeguy, a plain-spoken Basque peasant who has risen to become an officer in an army led by aristocrats;[2] Captain Philippe Esclavier, a well-intentioned aristocratic officer who recognizes that things have to change; Lieutenant Mahidi, an “assimilated” Algerian Muslim army officer who is driven to support the rebels by the abuse of his people; his very wiggly sister Aicha,[3] who becomes Esclavier’s lover; and Major Boisfeuras, a Franco-Chinese half-caste who is an exponent of counter-insurgency.[4]

It begins in the doomed French fortress of Dien Bien Phu.  In brief compass, Dien Bien Phu falls; Raspeguy’s men return from the Vietminh prison camp just in time to join the Algerian War; Raspeguy is restored to a command thanks to the machinations of a French countess with political influence who is swept away by his manly charms; Raspeguy’s unit fights the Algerian rebels in the “bled” and in Algiers, but they start to have doubts when they discover that people like Mahidi and Aicha are on the other side, that Boisfeuras uses torture, and their scummy aristocratic commanders will leave them to bear the blame for any failure.  Raspeguy has to fight against both sides while maintaining his honor.  He wins the “Battle fo Algiers” as well as a final shoot-out with Mahidi.  “Lost Command ends with the enlightened Frenchman shaking hands with the enlightened African medical officer in a foreshadowing of France’s loss of empire.  So, Hollywood, except that Esclavier doesn’t get Aicha (although Raspeguy may get the countess).

The movie got so-so reviews, but Larteguy’s novel has continued to command the attention of people concerned with counter-insurgency warfare—like David Petraeus.


[1] Robson specialized in directing adaptations of middle-brow literature.  He had directed the war movies “The Bridges at Toko-ri” (1954); “Von Ryan’s Express” (1965).  He had directed “Home of the Brave” (1949) and “Trial” (1955), which are attacks on racial prejudice, the latter as an entering wedge for Communism.   He became confused by American culture in the late Sixties and Seventies.  That is true of many of us.

[2] Raspeguy is modeled on Marcel Bigeard, as is Colonel Jean Mathieu in “The Battle of Algiers.”

[3] Played by the very wiggly Claudia Cardinale.

[4] Boisfeuras is standing-in for the French theorists of “revolutionary war” David Galula and Roger Trinquier.

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