Book Review: The Foreign Legion Photoplay Title of the Red Mirage

After posting some pictures from “The Red Mirage” on this blog back on the 15th of March, I finally finished reading the actual book.  (I’ve posted the .pdf version below but you can find other formats (Kindle, EPUB, etc.) from the Internet Archive at this link:  http://www.archive.org/details/cu31924021732940
This novel was written by I. A. R. Wylie (Ida Alexa Ross, 1885-1959, Bio) and originally published in 1914.  According to Wikipedia the book was republished in 1928 to coincide with the release of the movie “The Foreign Legion” which was  based on the book.  There had been an earlier movie based on this book released in 1915 called “The Unknown” but it was not very successful (IMDB Review).   The book with the red cover (the “photoplay” version) that I’m reviewing is from 1928.
The story begins with the death of a young legionnaire (Matricule Number 3112) while on a forced 50km march through the desert back to Sidi Bel Abbes (SBA).  Unable to keep up with the pace of the march the lad was abandoned by his comrades at the command of the ruthless Legion Regiment commander—Colonel Destinn.  The ragged column eventually arrives and marches past a café where an Englishwoman, Sylvia Omney, and her charming French suitor, Captain Arnaud of the Foreign Legion are having a night out.  It just so happens (small spoiler) that the bleu who expired in the desert was Sylvia’s brother and Syliva was in SBA looking for him.  You would think this is the hook for the main plot but it’s not.
We then jump to England and meet Richard Farquhar and his mother.  Richard is a longtime childhood friend of Sylvia’s who has notions of proposing to her and is talking this decision over with his mother.  Richard’s father abandoned his family some twenty years earlier and is believed to have been killed somewhere in Africa.  Then low-and-behold we find Sylvia back from Algeria along with Captain Arnaud.  Sylvia promptly begins to break poor Richard’s heart by making it apparent that she prefers her new hot-blooded Frenchman to her not-so-hot-blooded Englishman.  Richard is also a Lieutenant in an English Cavalry regiment so he goes to the O-Club to drink away his sorrow.  At the officer’s drawing room the other officers are playing cards and Richard, drinking heavily for the first time in his life, promptly makes an ass out of himself with Captain Sower—his senior officer.  Bad form and all that!  Stumbling back to his apartment and fumbling with the doors he is gently let into his room by his neighbor, the lovely but plain Miss Gabrielle Smith.
The following day Richard says his farewell to Sylvia and then later meets Captain Sower who demands an apology for Richard’s insulting behavior the night before.  When Richard refuses, CPT Sower then plays his trump card.  It seems he has evidence that explains why his father disappeared: Richard’s father, Colonel Farquhar, shot and killed Sower’s father (a Jew).  The elder Sower had discovered Farquhar senior’s plot to sell plans for a new firearm to a foreign government.  When Colonel Farquhar was found out he shot Sower. He did not die immediately and since he was close friends with Colonel Farquhar he decided to let his old friend escape but only on three conditions: withdraw his offer to the foreigners, resign his commission and then leave England.  Colonel Farquhar signed a confession and headed for the hills.  So now, unless Lt. Richard Farquhar resigns his own commission Captain Sower will release his father’s letter of confession which would disgrace the Farquhar family name.  Richard agrees and promises to return with his resignation that evening.  Heartbroken, a disgrace to his fellow officers and now facing a possible scandal, Richard is just about to blow his brains out with a revolver when Gabrielle Smith unexpectedly returns to his room and sees what he is up to.  Suddenly ashamed of what he was going to do he gives up the gun to Gabrielle.
On his return to the Officer’s drawing room Richard stumbles into another scandal which now involves CPT Arnaud.  The French officer was attempting to steal the secret weapons plans from Sower and was caught red-handed. The officers were just debating how to deal with the spy but without hesitation, Richard announces that he was the one who give the plans to Arnaud and that he will resign his commission and flee the country if they would let Arnaud go.  His peers accept his confession, let the French officer go and then let Farquhar go on the assumption that he will shot himself to avoid public scandal and arrest.  Richard’s explanation to Arnaud was that he is protecting Sylvia from the shame of being engaged and married to spy and he warns Arnaud that his eye will be on him from now on and he better not do anything stupid to hurt Sylvia.
We are now only up to page 56 of 300 and the plot gets even more twisted and complicated when all the characters somehow make their way to the Legion Headquarters in Sidi Bel Abbes, Algeria.  (At this time it was only this intricate plot that kept me reading.)  In order to disappear, Richard joins the Foreign Legion of course (as Richard Nameless) and the newlywed Captain Arnaud (with Sylvia) are stationed under Colonel Destinn.  Miss Gabrielle Smith also just happens to be the (paid) companion/aide to Sylvia Omney so she accompanies Sylvia to Algeria as well.  We then meet Legion Corporal Gotz (von Berlichingen) who befriends Richard and there is Rachael the local Jewish temptress who works in the local Café du Tonkin and has her hooks in Captain Arnaud.  The rest of the story then lapses into way too much melodramatic, over the top dialogue.  It does not turn out well for several of the main characters—several are dead by the time the book is finished.  I won’t tell much more of the plot beyond this and I’m still not sure that I was able to follow every twisted plot line.
This book is a fine example of the type of fiction that was popular for this time.  It is very well written I thought but I also found that I didn’t have the patience for some of the overblown prose involving the love interests.  It was written for a whole different cultural period–one where a bit of antisemitism by the author was not an issue.  Indeed, in this book the villains all turn out to be Jews.  Old man Sower turns out to be the real traitor who was selling the weapons plans, his son is an obvious scoundrel and Rachael kills one of the main characters.   Finally, the worst of all was how the author used the setting of the Foreign Legion in her story.  To the author the legionnaires were just so much cannon fodder to be expended to assuage  the personal demons of Colonel Destinn and his loser of an offspring.  (Yes, you will quickly figure out that Destinn is Colonel Farquhar–no spoiler here).  It reaches the level of absurdity when 700 men of an 800 man column are killed by a sandstorm (Destinn, Farquhar and Arnaud survive of course).  When the bedraggled survivors return to base there doesn’t seem to be any inquiry or effort to recover the lost men.  It’s like the whole town and barracks simply said “Oh, well!”.  In this novel punishment in the Legion is severe with the crapudine utilized with obvious intent to kill the legionnaire.  So, bottom line, this book has a complex plot, overblown romantic episodes and a complete disregard for anything relating to facts about the Foreign Legion.   A Soldier of the Legion by C. N. & A. M Williamson (also published in 1914) was a much better read and provided a more realistic depiction of the Foreign Legion, but then it’s authors took the time to visit Sidi Bel Abbes and do their research first.

The Red Mirage

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About Jack Wagner

Retired Army.
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