At the height of its glory, the French Foreign Legion was made up of men widely regarded as the scum of the earth. It was a mercenary army posted to colonies in Northern Africa and Southern Asia…but its soldiers swore no allegiance to France, only to the legion and to each other. The legion asked no questions about a man’s past…nor did it offer much hope for his future. It was a hard way to get a second chance in life…
I’ve watched Legionnaire about a dozen times already and it was only a matter of time until I reviewed it on this blog. My bottom line assessment is that I wish this movie was better. It had many things going for it such as location/sets, story, cinematography, technical details, actors, and music but for some reason all of these things were just not able to come together to make this a truly great movie that could stand outside (or at least at the top) of the Jean Claude Van Damme Adventure Movie genre. Nonetheless, as a Foreign Legion fan, I liked the movie and would list it in my Top 10 FFL movies.
Some of the problems with this movie had to do with several plot “stalls” or places where the movie spent too much time on different scenes and tangents that could have been better utilized to further the Foreign Legion story and keep it moving at appropriate pace for an adventure movie. I won’t detail the plot–that can be found here–but the plot alone I think it would have been enough to keep the audience on the edge of their seat if it was done right. Personally, I would have eliminated much of the early parts of the movie, especially several scenes concerning the “love interest” which didn’t make sense anyway. I don’t understand if Alain (Van Damme) was planning to escape with his girl to America why he didn’t take a fall in the ring, collect his money and slip out of town without bringing any undue attention to his plans. Also, this part of the movie was supposed to take place in 1925 Marseilles though it looked more like it was originally plotted to be in Paris. (I expect Marseilles should have had more of a North African feel to it and the street scenes should have looked a bit more “arabesque”. That was my impression of the city when I was there in 1980 and that is how many described it 100 years ago). Later in the movie there just seemed to be too much time spent depicting desert marching scenes and some of the poorly done barracks scenes didn’t contribute to the overall theme of the movie. Also, parts of the training scenes seemed more like prison punishment–I would have liked to see the Legion Company come together as a whole before marching off to fight the Rifs. The heavy-set German NCO, the toady to the sergeant-chef, was quite annoying throughout the whole movie, waving his stick around and screaming all the time but the sergeant-chef character came across as tough but fair and the brief appearance of the smart young officer was a nice touch. Another unnecessary scene that I would have dropped was when Van Damme carries his friend Rossetti when he falls out of the march and is left to die in the desert. I just don’t see why the director spends so much time with this only to have Rossetti shot dead minutes after arriving at water hole scene. It would have been better to have Rossetti save the Sergeant-chef’s life and this finally gains some respect for both Van Damme and his friends. But whatever.
Now for the things I liked. The plot was very good–so good that it could have been written up as a pulp story (without the confusing love interest). (In fact there actually were several stories written about fugitives who thought they would be safe in the Legion until the bad guys figure out where they are hiding. It’s a classic plot device.) I liked the variety of characters depicted; the black American known as Luther, MacIntosh who was a former English Infantry officer, the Italian Rossetti who dreams of his future fiancée, and even some of the lesser members of the Legion company were depicted in the right way. The music composed by John Altman was well done. Small accurate details were very enjoyable for me; the 3e REI signs, the washing of the uniform, the blue waist sashes, and the setting of the wire obstacles. The uniforms were spot on with the only exception being that the kepis looked a bit odd. They were covered in the appropriate khaki cover for the period but the couvre-nuque (neck cover) seemed a bit narrow and the black visor as well as the overall height of the kepi were a bit too big. In several scenes the kepi worn by Van Damme had an odd bulging ring around the top. The rifles were Lebels (or looked like it to me) but I’m pretty sure the Legion didn’t use Lewis guns which was seen in several parts of this movie. The horde of Riffian fighters led by Abd el-Krim looked great and were sufficiently blood thirsty. Acting was not bad at all. The fort depicted in the last 30 minutes of the movie was well done–it showed the signs of a previous attack and is suitably North African for my tastes. It might have been better to place this scene/fort into some more hilly terrain because the fighting that took place in 1925/26 against the Riffians took place in the mountainous “Er Rif” region of northern Morocco but this worked out O.K. (filming location was Spain).
I took lots of screenshots for uniform reference and so you can get a good look at the Legion Fort.