Sergeant Klems

Sergeant KlemsSergeant Klems / Il sergente Klems.  Released 1971.  Italian–dubbed in English.   96 minutes.  Directed by Sergio Grieco; Cast: Peter Strauss (Foreign Legion Sergeant Otto Josef Klems), Tina Aumont (daughter of Rif Leader).

Like many veterans I can’t sit through a war movie without nitpicking the weapons, uniforms, tactics, jargon, or history.  With Foreign Legion movies however I’m actually a bit more forgiving since I expect technical and historical inaccuracies–kind of like watching a western.   Sergeant Klems is a movie that had many positive things going for it–things that made me smile and think “that’s neat” or “that looks real”.  Sergeant Klems was filmed on location on Morocco, it pulled together a large cast and hundreds of extras, it had decent technical details on the uniforms for both the French and the Rif tribesmen, a decent plot, and the historical setting was very good and mostly accurate.  But it also had many scenes that made me shake my head and say “WTF, Over”.  For everything they got right in this movie there was something wrong–like the fat Legion NCO with hippie hair that we first see betting on a scorpion fight (and then eating them when he loses).  The weapons depicted were great until you see an MG34 (?) being used from the top of an M4 halftrack in what was supposed to be 1927.   Even the North African fantasia, a horsemanship competition/display, turns into some weird contest of Islamic-Berber “death before dishonor”.   Also the plot progressed at a very haphazard pace–too much time spent on inconsequential scenes and then suddenly there is violent battle and then followed by too much time spent on another unnecessary scene.  But like I said–I didn’t expect much from this movie but it leaves me wondering why smart efforts made to create a good movie always seem to be wasted by poorly thought out scenes, ill-fitting characters, stupid dialogue, and poorly plotted continuity.  I said virtually the same things in review of the Jean Claude Van Damme movie-Legionnaire–great potential sabotaged.  (My viewing pleasure was also hindered by the quality of film that I had–a scaled down letterbox version of poor quality with even worse dubbing and sound.)

The plot was decent enough–beginning in the trenches of World War One we see a German soldier struggle through the mud and debris and (apparently) take the identity of a fallen comrade (though you couldn’t tell what was going on).  Flash forward to Guercif, Morocco where the same former German trench fighter, now known as Otto Klems, has been in the Foreign Legion for the past six years or so.  An outstanding soldier, he is promoted to Sergeant but later experiences disillusionment after being accused of letting a prisoner escape by his commanding officer–an obviously creepy sexual predator who repeatedly has his queer advances rebuffed by Klems.  Klems eventually deserts his unit to meet the wife of the man who’s identity he has stolen.  This doesn’t pan out to anything as far as the plot goes and Klems then flees into the desert where he is captured by Rif tribesmen.  He eventually becomes a military adviser to the rebels who handily route the Spanish forces controlling their homeland.  Then the French get dragged into the conflict and we see Klems leading Rif tribesmen against his former comrades in the Foreign Legion.   Along the way he gets married to the daughter of Abd El-Krim.  He eventually is captured by the French and is sent away to Devil’s Island where he supposedly dies of gangrene.

Sergeant Klems is actually based on the real events and exploits of Legionnaire Josef Otto Klems who actually deserted the Foreign Legion and joined the Rif rebels in Morocco.  He became one of the key advisers to El-Krim’s forces and was “most wanted” by the French.  Accounts differ on who Klems actually was, his rank in the Foreign Legion, his role in the Riffian rebellion and even his capture and subsequent demise in captivity.  In Foreign Legion fiction there are plenty of Sergeant Klems’–men who defect to the tribesmen for gold, revenge, or because they were rescued in their attempt to escape their service to the Legion.  Even P. C. Wren explored this role of “going native” with his novels Beau Sabreur and Beau Ideal.   I’m gathering what I can about Klems and hopefully have enough to put together a post on this controversial legionnaire.  (some screenshots below–poor copy = poor quality).

Sergeant Klems

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About Jack Wagner

Retired Army.
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9 Responses to Sergeant Klems

  1. Eugene Olivier says:

    Jack, A book called LA LEGION by somone called BOCCA, is a history of the Legion. All the popular stories are there, and I began by saying to myself “What’s new?” But there are a lot of hitherto unknown (to me) facts and details, presumably true. There is a definite U.S. slant specially as regards W W I. I am still busy on it. What may interest you in connection with Otto Klemms, however, is a whole chapter devoted to him. It is entitled THE PILGRIM. Check it out, or if you like I could copy the relevant pages (about sixteen plus pic of Abd-El-Krim). Remember too, there is a long history (possibly fictitious) of his exploits in P.C. Wren’s PORT O’ MISSING MEN.
    Another fascinating book that is demanding my attention at present deals with the assassination of Reinard Heydrich in Prague during WWII. Did you know that one of the Check? / Bohemian? / Moravian /? Slav?/ assassins was an ex-legionnaire? At least he joined the Legion, but served in London as a parachutist.

    Eugene

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    • Jack Wagner says:

      Eugene,
      Thanks for the information on the Bocca book–of the 200+ books I have on the Foreign Legion that is one that I neglected to buy. I’ll add that to the top of my list just for the chapter on Klems–it seems inexpensive enough. I’ll also check out the Wren stories–I seem to recall something about renegade Legionnaires joining the hill tribes but I thought that was the two American characters, Hank and Buddy, from Beau Geste who are important characters in Beau Sabreur and Beau Ideal. What is the name of the book on the Heydrich assassins? I think I have a recently published book on that topic that I’ve not read yet.

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    • Barry says:

      This is an excellent book – got me interested in the Klemms story. Glad to see others are interested in this enigmatic and fascinating character. Just finished MARCH OR DIE by Gerachty. Not too much in there about Klemms per se, but really blew me away how many interesting stories there are connected to the history of La Legion Etrangere. Keep up the good work, y’all.

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  2. Eugene Olivier says:

    Last things first. The Heydrich book is by Laurent Binet. It has a very strange title. It is four “aitches” each one in a different font H H h H which I am unable to reproduce here. It was wriitten in 2009 in French.. English translation 2012.
    See e-mail and attachment on Otto Klems. Wren has him as Odo Klemens. I have also seen it spelt Kremms. Same guy.

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    • Jack Wagner says:

      Thanks for the info again Eugene. I do have that book–I’ll have to dig it out from the garage. I’m keeping a list of obscure Legionnaires and the commando in this book will be added to the list. On the list I have a famous American artist who was in the Legion in 1870, a WWI volunteer who created the first elements of Air Force search and rescue, as well as an interesting man by the name of Joseph Pulitzer who tried to join the Foreign Legion but was turned away.

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  3. moe says:

    Jack and Olivier,
    Thanks so much for this very instructive discussion. Jack, thanks for this website. I have just discovered it, and I found it extremely useful. I’m currently working on a translation of Vincent Sheean’s book on the Rif (the Chicago Tribune correspondent in the Rif in 1925.). While in the Rif, Sheean met and sat with Klems who told him his whole life story. There is a whole chapter in the book devoted to Klems who Sheean calls “Robin Hood.” The book is “An American among the Riffi.” Olivier, I am intrigued by the book you mentioned by Geoffrey Bocca. Unfortunately, I can’t get hold of it. I would be very grateful if you could possibly send me the relevant pages. In addition to the translation, I am also working on a book-length project on foreign fighters in the Rif war. So your help would be highly appreciated. Thanks.
    P.S. If you need the chapter on Klems from Sheean’s book, I would be happy to send it.

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    • Jack Wagner says:

      Thanks for the tip on Sheean’s book–I found a copy for a decent price to add to my collection. I’ll be glad to send you the chapter from the Bocca book. It’s an amazing topic-the Rif War. Give me time to scan those pages and I’ll send them to you by the weekend. I’ll be glad to help where I can.

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  4. Wren had a number of short stories about Klems. Wren called him Klemens. The stories are: Bombs (in v. 2 of The Collected Short Stories), The Return of Otto Klemens, The Betrayal of Otto Klemens, The Life of Otto Klemens (all three in v. 3), and a brief mention of Klemens in Telepathy Extraordinary (in v. 5).

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  5. Jürgen Ladkau says:

    Ich bin an weitere Informationen über den Sergeant Klems interessiert!
    Meine Exfrau ist eine geb. Klems und mir liegen von meiner ehemaligen Schwiegermutter Schriftstücke, Zeitungsartikel und ein von Klems selbst gebautes Holzkaestchen von der Teufelsinsel, bestimmt für seine Mutter, Hermine.

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