The Wars On Film is a Bi-Weekly series dedicated to films and television mini-series set within the war genre. Once every two weeks I’ll dive into a classic of the genre, performing a retrospective on it, digging into the storytelling, production design, and depictions of military combat within these works and examining how they tackle the various tropes of the genre as well as any attributes unique to the specific works. If you have any suggestions for films or mini-series that you would like to see me tackle, feel free to mention them in the comments.
A little background on this week’s choice and my plan for the series going forward: I’ve been doing this series for several months now, and up till now I have confined the series exclusively to films and mini-series that were released years ago, with the most recently released being Zero Dark Thirty which came out in 2012. There are many reasons for this decision, but it was primarily related to the fact that we haven’t had that many war films released in the last few years, and the fact that focusing on films that people are already aware of and familiar with allowed me to build up the series and establish a bit of credibility. That being said, there are several new films in the genre coming out over the next year or so, and I want to make sure that I am covering those as well. What this means for the article series is that any time a new war film gets a wide release, I’m going to do my best to have a review out the same weekend. Which brings us to this week’s selection. While it actually was officially released on Netflix on October 7th, The Siege of Jadotville only just popped up on my radar yesterday. Seeing as it is on a streaming platform however, I doubt many of you are currently aware of it, so I wanted to be able to give you your first review on the film, and hopefully nudge you into giving it a try. So without further ado, let’s dive on in.
I will admit to knowing absolutely nothing about either the film or the real life story of The Siege of Jadotville prior to discovering it in my Netflix queue yesterday. The film, which tells the true story of the 1961 siege of the UN compound in Jadotville (now Likasi), in the now Democratic Republic of Congo, in which a company of 155 Irish troops on a UN Peacekeeping mission waged a pitched multi-day battle against a force of Katangese soldiers supplemented by French and Belgian mercenaries, that numbered between 3,000 to 5,000 men. As this film is a new release, I will do my best to avoid any actual spoilers, though they are obviously available to anyone who wants to read up on the actual battle. The film features a very talented cast of British, French, and African performers, highlighted by the performances of Jamie Dornan, Jason O’Mara, Mark Strong, and Danny Sapani and was directed by Richie Smyth.
As to the quality of the film itself, I must admit to being quite floored. Based on my inability to find any prior work of his, this appears to have been Smyth’s first feature, though one would be hard pressed to guess that if you did not go in with that knowledge beforehand. Smyth manages to mine the drama out of the story and the action, as Commandant Pat Quinlan (Dornan) and his men find themselves in an extremely precarious situation as the direct result of the fumblings of UN diplomats who were attempting to assist the Congolese government in dealing with a violent rebel uprising in the Katanga region. When the orders of Irish diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien (Strong) result in the deaths of 30 civilians, the rebels launch an all-out assault on the compound at Jadotville. This alone would have made for a compelling story but additional story layers, specifically the presence of French mercenaries sent to protect French mining interests in the region, add intrigue to the narrative. This is not a story about a band of scrappy heroes fighting off wave after wave of savage fighters ala Black Hawk Down, but rather a tale of callous bureaucrats playing a game of chess using these regular men as pawns. The Irish peacekeepers and the Katangese rebels and the mercenaries that lead them, are simply depicted as men doing their jobs and following orders, the Irish to hold Jadotville, and the Katangese and mercenaries to take it. This decision, to present the commanders of both forces as morally neutral soldiers fighting the fight that they were told to fight, is a brilliant one, as it forces the viewer to look at the morality of the conflict itself and the decisions that lead to it, and to see the events from the point of view of the average soldier. As a result we feel their terror when they realize that they are alone, and that help is not coming over the next hill. The feeling of total abandonment and despair that comes across in Quinlan’s eyes in that moment is more powerful and the desperation with which the Irish fight the ensuing battle are heightened due to these narrative choices. And that battle, when it finally starts is a spectacle to behold. The combat is frenetic and beautifully shot, and manages to continually ratchet up the tension each step of the way. Smyth and cinematographer Nikolaus Summerer brilliantly capture the chaos of combat as the under-armed and outmanned Irish soldiers fight for their lives. This all leads up to particularly brilliant and inventive moment near the end of the film as the Irish pull out all of the stops to defend their position.
I do not know exactly what I expected when I started The Siege of Jadotville, but I can say with 100% certainty that it exceeded my expectations. I will be keeping an eye on the career of Richie Smyth moving forward, because if his debut film was any indication, he has a bright future ahead of him. I absolutely recommend The Siege of Jadotville to anyone who is interested in the military genre, and especially to history buffs. It will be one of the best films you watch this year.