The Siege Of Jadotville
Believe you me, this is one of the most surprising films I have come across ever. The story of the Irish peacekeepers at Jadotville is one that is bizarrely unknown even in Ireland, and the idea that the new movie-making behemoth that is Netflix would be interested in bankrolling such a production seems so crazy that since the moment this film was announced I have expected it to vanish into development/pre-production hell at any time. But here we are, and with one of the industry’s breakout stars in the lead to boot. Is The Siege Of Jadotville every inch the epic war film it appears to be, a suitable tribute to the heroism and dutiful service of those men engaged? Or is it too much, too grand an effort, that undercuts the very events it is trying to faithfully depict?
1961: the breakaway province of Katanga threatens the safety of the newly independent nation of the Congo, and the rich mineral resources relied upon by the world’s superpowers. The UN sends a force to keep the peace, among them the untested Irish troops of Commandant Pat Quinlan (Jamie Dornan), stationed at the isolated and vulnerable Jadotville position. When they come under an attack from rebel forces led by battle-hardened French mercenaries, A Company must deal with both the overwhelming enemy numbers in front of them, and the uncaring incompetence of UN official Conor Cruise O’Brien (Mark Strong) behind.
Where to start? The context of this film is an interesting one. The Irish Defence Forces are just a background detail at times, in the overall tapestry of the public service, little noticed by the wider citizenry unless it’s to point out some problem. A film about its exploits 55 years ago always has the potential to turn into something approaching propaganda. But curiously enough, The Siege Of Jadotville doesn’t frame itself directly about the Irish Defence Forces, at least not initially, choosing it’s prologue to be a glimpse at the conflict that drew them into the Congo, with the death of Patrice Lumumba at the hands of Katanga’s newly declared leader Moise Tshambo. The only white man present is a sneering operator of a mining company, who barely has any lines in the film at all. The point is made quickly, that the story we are about to see might be about white men, but it is one of intrusion on a problem deeper and more troublesome than they can contemplate dealing with, a notion Pat Quinlan later struggles with. It was unexpected bit of depth and understanding in the film-maker, the largely unblooded Riche Smyth, and the first hint that what he had put together passed muster.
As a war movie, The Siege Of Jadotville succeeds brilliantly. It’s exciting without being a cartoon, it’s emotionally impactful without being sentimental and maudlin. It depicts the realities of combat in such a time and place with rigid faithfulness to the accounts of those that were there and, in my eyes, the story being told loses nothing for that. The terrible irony is that the extraordinary nature of the details is bound to leave those less educated about the real-life events rolling their eyes at what they are seeing: no Irish soldier died? The UN and the Irish command stopped answering the phone rather than acknowledge the disaster? The whole affair was brushed under the carpet? Yeah right.
That’s what a lot of people will say. Which is a shame, because The Siege Of Jadotville is extraordinary true to the events that it depicts, save a few moments late on when the need for Hollywood-esque big bangs becomes appropriate. Such accuracy is rare in a film of this type, and should be commended. Yet, it is also fair to say that Smyth depicts the real events in such a light that they don’t appear overly framed or stilted, as might easily have been the case.
As an Irish movie, The Siege Of Jadotville also succeeds wonderfully, evoking memories of the same kind of tone in its Irish characters as the works of John Michael McDonagh: that kind of fatally optimistic, brutally sarcastic and “lets-get-on-with-it-then” attitude infects most Irish characters, in a good way, bringing to life dialogue that might otherwise have seemed hokey, and allowing an audience – an Irish audience anyway – really connect with characters that might otherwise have been utter throwaways. While The Siege Of Jadotville leaves plenty of time for other figures in the larger story – right down to a brief cameo from Charles De Gaulle himself – it’s placing the Irish front and centre after that opening.
The set-up is simple, but somewhat aggrandising if I am being honest: the production team wants you to think that one wrong move by Irish peacekeepers and the US and USSR will be slinging nukes at each other, which was, in my opinion, unlikely. The situation in the Congo is treated largely as the UN trying to stop the Americans and the Soviets from tearing the place apart, and little attention to paid to, say, the extraordinary recklessness of the Belgian withdrawal from the country without any effort to prop it up to stand on its own. It’s like they thought the story of Jadotville couldn’t do the job in terms of tension, and maybe it won;t for non-Irish audiences.
The diplomatic side of things is dominated by Mark Strong as Irish writer/UN official/politician Conor Cruise O’Brien, whose family will probably squirm if they bother seeing this depiction. To say that O’Brien is slated in Strong’s performance and the film’s dialogue would be an understatement. The most charitable way to describe his tenure in the Congo, as one puts it later, is that he’s an academic “who thinks the world will stop while he thinks about it”. More harshly, O’Brien comes across as dangerously inept, cowardly and reckless when it comes to the lives of the people he commends and the people he is supposed to be protecting.
It isn’t that any of it is inaccurate either, but things might have been better presented with someone other than Strong in the lead role. He just doesn’t seem up for it at all, a by the numbers portrayal from the Englishman, who struggles to inject any kind of humanity or real emotion in O’Brien’s words and actions, not helped by a number of not so great scenes, like a rather pointless meeting with Tshambo around the halfway point. It might have been better if O’Brien and the UN leadership were completely absent from the story.
Much better is the central narrative, and much better is Dornan in the role of Quinlan. While a fair proportion of his time and energy seems to have been put into getting his native northern twang to conform to the Kerry brogue of Quinlan, Dornan generally is decent, imbuing the Commandant with the right kind of quiet dignity, grace under fire and concern for the men under his command, in the kind of stiff-upper-lip fashion that suits a portrayal of those instincts in a military man. His personal journey mirrors that of nearly every Irish character in uniform: to quote his wife before he leaves, “Don’t you want to find out if you’re as good as you think you are?”
Quinlan is an untested leader, his main support is an untested sergeant, his soldiers are all untested infantry from an untested army, to that point only occupied by the Emergency and whatever minor operations undertaken against the IRA. And characters diverge when it comes to what happens when the bullets start firing. Some, like Sgt Prendergast, ably played by a brilliant Jason O’Mara, rise to the challenge and become the sort of soldiers you’d follow anywhere. Some, like Quinlan make mistakes but learn quickly and get better fast. Others, like General McEntee back at HQ, fail miserably, not just as leaders, but as human beings, freezing up when the situation starts moving beyond their control.
Arranged against Quinlan and the Irish is Tshombe, played by Danny Sapani, who pops up in a few scenes to remind us of the higher stakes, without ever really seeming like he needs to be in the movie after the opening scene, and Guillaume Canet as an Falqez, a French mercenary commander. Some will surely balk at the predominantly black Congolese rebel army being ordered around by a white European, but accuracy is accuracy: Canet is good as the mercenary, who has a rather delicious if only slightly forced verbal showdown with Quinlan in a bar early on, icily noting that the Irish have never fought a war (ahem, as an independent nation anyway) before wondering why Quinlan has his men digging trenches. While Canet’s active role in proceedings is rather blunted as the fighting starts, he’s still an addition that adds something to the opposing side.
The actual fighting, which as noted is depticted with startling accuracy to the historical record, is a very good exercise in gradual escalation, that keeps things from ever getting boring even as we stay rigidly locked on the same few trenches and buildings. The rebels start off with rifles and machine guns, then later comes snipers, then mortars, then air power, while the Irish become ever more cut off and isolated, as the bungling command finds themselves unable – and unwilling – to help them to the very best of their ability. Smyth hooks all of this in place with simple characterisation for a few of the soldiers who are fighting, so throwaway in some respects that I don’t even remember their names, but still memorable in other ways: the sniper who draws first blood, the private who wonders at the euphoric rush of combat, the radioman’s growing frustration, the mortar operator’s glee at finding a target, a group of men facing the perils of bullets and snakes along with the bawdy soldiers talk typical of such a unit. The Siege Of Jadotville doesn’t have the time or the inclination to make most of the Irish soldiers depicted into fully rounded individuals, but does enough that the focus on them is not a wasted endeavour.
In terms of the fighting, what we’re learning are some key, but basic, lessons in warfare, namely that even the most inexperienced, outnumbered and out of their depth military force can prove an impassable obstacle if led well and with the right fortifications. The French and the Congolese under-estimate their foe so drastically that the taking of the UN outpost of Jadotville rapidly becomes a pyrrhic exercise when one compares the respective death tolls, and The Siege Of Jadotville portrays this stark reality very well. I won’t “spoil” the conclusion of the film, other than to say that the bittersweet outcome of A Company’s heroism is fittingly portrayed in such a way as to invoke fierce admiration towards those engaged at Jadotville, and fierce anger at those who saw fit to diminish the immense accomplishment of the fighting there.
On a visual level, the film is unexpectedly impressive. Largely filed in South Africa, the landscape of “the Congo” and of Ireland is effectively contrasted early on, and later the brown richness of the African scrubland is brought to the fore ably by cinematographer Nikolaus Summerer. The outpost in Jadotville is frequently glimpsed at from a distance, as if to signify to a greater extent its relative smallness, both in the overall vastness of the Congo, and in the larger geopolitical affairs that it found itself at the centre of.
The combat scenes are a visceral delight, with effective use of shaky cam, cutting and the frequently booming sound editing. A key inspiration is undoubtedly Cy Endfield’s Zulu, especially in the latter sections, but Smyth toes the line between homage and lifting rather well. No “Men of Harlech” moments here, but a respectful similarity in overall scope and presentation. Strangely enough, I was also struck by thoughts of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom Of Heaven in certain respects, especially in scenes where Quinlan and the French mercenary parley in the ground between the two armies, while Quinlan’s shell-shocked soldiers wait for news of what’s to come. Beyond all that though, there are some inspired visual cuts and shots: the opening fade in on the Congo, then Katanga, and then Jadotville forming the film’s title, the resident sniper of the company firing at a bell to warn the church going troops that an attack is starting or the hazy brown dust cloud that envelops some of the final moments, as A Company are pressed to their absolute utmost.
The script of Kevin Brodbin, adapted from the book by Declan Power, is more hit and miss. There are some really great exchanges and lines throughout, a personal favourite being Prendergast’s declaration that he will “charge you for every bullet that misses” as things get fraught, or Quinlan’s angry response when told to simply hold Jadotville by his hapless commander: “With what? A stiff pole?”. The aforementioned Irishness is visible in spades, from the distant father of one soldier insisting his son will be fine as his “mother will be praying for you, and sure doesn’t she have the direct line?” to the soldiers jokingly referring to Quinlan as St Patrick as he dumps snakes out of their trenches. And the entire screen I was watching the film with gave a very audible “Ohhh” as Quinlan baits the French mercenary who mocks his respect for Erwin Rommel: “Well, a German tactician overran your whole country in two weeks”.It’s a film that also knows the right time and place for profanity too, and that’s a rare enough thing in modern cinema.
On the negative side, many lines and exchanges seem stilted, a notable offender being any interaction between O’Brien and Quinlan. The two only converse over a radio line, and it’s painfully clear that there was no attempt to get the two even in the same room to give the exchange that sense of presence: in the final product, it’s obvious that the two parts of the scene were being filmed miles and weeks apart.
If there is a part of the production that falls down to the point of distraction, it’s the score by the otherwise accomplished Joseph Trapenese, which is so obviously “inspired” by the work of Hanz Zimmer as to be rather laughable at moments. Early scenes of Katanganese revolt are overlaid with beats straight from Batman Begins, while later action scenes resonate to something similar to “Mombasa” before the notes of “Time” intercut right at the end. It’s really very brazen, and odd to hear.
I was expecting The Siege Of Jadotville to be a tribute to the peacekeeping ethos that Ireland has so readily and willingly signed up for, but in the end it really wasn’t: the film slates much of the UN and its manner of running such operations, and baldly states the probable truth that it would have been happier if everyone at Jadotville had been killed fighting to the last man. It also isn’t as much of a tribute to the Irish Defence Forces as I thought it would be, or to the armies of other small nations that struggle to exist in a world where their service is often sneered at by people who ignorantly suppose they serve no purpose. Indeed, the larger entity of the Irish Defence Forces, through General McEntee and those who allowed his mean-spirited, cowardly and indefensible deflection of A Company’s achievements to stand, the film paints a rather negative picture of.
Instead, as stated at its conclusion, The Siege Of Jadotville is for the “Jadotville Jacks” alone. These 150 men volunteered to serve at the behest of the UN, put their lives on the line in the carrying out of that mission, and received nowhere near their just reward for doing so. If this film does nothing else, it will hopefully be the final demolishing of the wall of ignorance that has been raised up around the events of Jadotville, allowing those who fought there, still living and those since passed, to be properly and fully honoured for what they did in the service of peace.
And The Siege Of Jadotville does plenty else besides. It tells an engaging story that balances the experience of the Irish and the Congolese as well as it can. With a glaring exception, it features a good cast doing good work. With the exception of the lazy score, the film triumphs in its production details, most notably its cinematography. And the script generally sparkles, with all of the wit, courage and wisdom that one would expect from such a tale and from such characters. The Siege Of Jadotville is an unlikely movie of an unlikely event. It’s a miracle it got this far. But thank God that it did. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).