A War Aslant
Early in January 1915, two missionary priests, on a tour of their parishes on the isolated margins of French Equitorial Africa, collect a package for Hubert Fresnoy (Jacques Spiessier) a schoolteacher based at the same dusty, half-forgotten trading post where they live. The arrival of the package so excites the lonely community of nine misfits that everyone voraciously hovers over “Monsieur Hubert” as he unpacks the books, magazines and newspapers dispatched four months before. While he, a self-styled socialist, immediately retreats to a corner to read about the assassination of Jaures, the French socialist leader, the others scrabble greedily through the newspapers.
Slowly, though, they realize that France has been at war with Germany since August of 1914. In a sudden surge of irrational jingoism, they decide to attack their nearest neighbor and best customer, the equally tiny German garrison a few miles away. After all, as Réchampot (Jean Dufilho), the owner of the post’s largest store, boasts, the French have six African soldiers against the Germans’ three, plus one regular army sergeant, two priests and the schoolteacher to direct operations. But when the Germans’ Africans prove more adept at war than the French Africans, the two groups of exiles decide that the only way to guarantee victory is the impressment of ever larger armies of local Africans. The accelerating corruption of morality this struggle provokes is the subject of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s biting World War I satire, Black and White in Color.
Annaud’s first, and most eloquent, movie has lost none of its bite since it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Picture 26 years ago. Annaud’s satire runs, in Emily Dickinson’s phrase, “aslant,” encompassing an unusually comprehensive historical vision. He weaves into this taut, 92-minute film not only the unfolding of a local conflict fatally infused with imperialist ideology, but also a scathing commentary on both the fighting of World War I and its tragic effects on the countries who fought it.
The film cleverly skewers both imperialism and World War I through precise characters. Unlike the caricatured, malicious misanthropes of Richard Attenborough’s Oh, What a Lovely War (1969), the bumbling colonial riff-raff of Annaud’s French trading post are ineptly ordinary, bent on making money, making love, and making it to retirement. The petit bourgeois traders drink, eat, and snigger complacently at the neighboring Germans, who can train their African bearers to perform precision marching, but have to buy all their supplies from the French.
The “intellectuals” on the post, the young schoolmaster and the two missionary priests, the anarchically misnamed Father John of the Cross (Peter Berling) and his younger colleague, Father Simon (Jacques Monnet) substitute self-regarding, delusional arrogance for the commercial and sensual glee of the bourgeois shopkeepers. Fresnoy’s exam results were so abysmal that instead of finding himself lecturing in the Parisian lycée he had imagined, he has to endure exile to the “white man’s grave” of the African trading post. His only intellectual outlet lies in the long letters he writes to his former professor, which take six months to reach their destination. In these letters, Annaud captures the “enlightened” philosophy of the pre-war socialist towards “the African,” allowing Fresnoy to damn himself by writing, “The natives are not far from meeting the honored name of men.”
The priests, on the other hand, view the local population as nothing more than pliant fodder for the kingdom of God (and whatever earthly purposes the French divine for them, including the waging of war). As Father Simon travels from parish to parish in a litter carried by the obedient of his flock, he leans back and breathes, “Ah, how I love this song!” As he, in unison with his compatriots, has never bothered to learn more than a few words of the local language, he remains blissfully unaware that his African servants’ chant mocks the vile smell of his feet and his ever-rocketing weight.
None of these characters has any idea what modern war might mean, a fitting parallel to the European governments at the time. They ignored the devastating barbarity of the Manchurian battles in the Russo-Japanese war (1905) and the unprecedented, entrenched slaughter of American Civil War battles like Fredericksburg (1862), Vicksburg (1863) and Petersburg (1864), and assumed that a period of gentlemanly conflict might terminate by Christmas 1914. The film questions every aspect of the war throughout, from Réchampot’s bravado while crossing a muddy, insignificant stream that separates the French and German colonies (a contemptuous reference to the Rhine) to the misery of African troops condemned to rainy season trenches, where they die of disease before bullet wounds.
Perhaps most sobering is Annaud’s portrayal of the recruiting of armies to fight this European war. The French first try bribery, offering a tin basin and a pair of boots to every “volunteer,” who is also rechristened with a French name. When supplies of tin basins run out and the boots prove unbearable (according to one recruit, their discomfort explains why Europeans are so miserable all the time), the colonists resort to sleazy deals with local chiefs, who undertake to provide quotas of troops in return for peace with the French. While Annaud’s vision of African troops in African trenches stretches historical accuracy in the service of art, he portrays the quota system coolly and factually, showing how the chiefs allied to the Europeans went to war with their neighbors to capture the bodies to fill the quotas. In this maelstrom of European hubris, over two million Africans fought and more than 200,000 died, a mobilization of manpower the historian Hew Strachan calls the greatest ever attempted in Africa. (1)
Peace is reached in 1918, but without honor. Annaud pinpoints in microcosm all the consequences of World War I. Réchampot’s hoarding and lies reflect the ruthless profiteering of the commercial classes who, despite their “patriotism,” think only of their personal gain. By turning idealistic young men of egalitarian principles (like Fresnoy) into petty dictators who create ever more draconian “states” to pursue the war, Annaud parallels the breaking apart of the pan-European Socialist movements. While these political parties threatened, just before the outbreak of war, to challenge the oligarchs of European democracy, they had discovered by 1919, through the taste of power the war offered, the sweetness of the status quo offered by colonialism and capitalism alike.
Resuming “business as usual” at the end of the war, the French colonials discover that only one thing will change in their lives: the Africans who were once German will now be English. Both commerce and conversion can proceed unchecked (at least until the next war they provoke breaks out in 1939). In this context, Home Vision Entertainment’s release of Annaud’s film to DVD seems fortuitous: as America and Britain emerge from their second imperial war in 12 years, the sliding of Black and White in Color into high school and college curricula might remind the next generation of decision-makers that war not only serves national interests but also fosters indifference to human suffering.
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(1) Strachan, Hew, The First World War, Volume I: To Arms (Oxford and London: Oxford University Press, 2001), 497.