Deserter (Simon: An English Legionnaire) (2002)
Director: Martin Huberty.
Starring: Paul Fox (Simon Murray), Tom Hardy (Pascal Dupont), Kate Maberly (Jennifer), Aitor Merino (Benito Valdes), Félicité Du Jeu (Nicole), Yorick van Wageningen (Schreiber), Bruno Munoz-Rojas (Blanco), Javier Alcina (Rodriguez), Christian Mulot (Lieutenant Thibault), Dugald Bruce Lockhart (Cpl Muller), Enzo Cilenti (Sgt. Crepelli), Bruno Lastra (Vasco), Katie Jones (Patricia).
a young Englishman with romantic illusion joins the French Foreign Legion and fights in Algeria's battle for independence from France
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
The film opens with a young man running across the Sahara desert in his a coat and tie. Other images are of older men asking him embarrassing questions and laughing at him. He has a girlfriend named Jennifer, who he calls Jeffa.
The fellow is Simon Murray and he has decided to join the French Foreign Legion. He is informed that if he signs up, he will have to stay in the legion for a minimum of five years. Simon signs up and the recruiter says he will leave for Algeria in the morning.
Algeria 1960. "Algeria has been a French colony for 127 years. French colonists called 'Pied Noirs' and the native Arab population have lived side by side peacefully for generations. Now, Arab nationalists entrenched in the mountains have begun an armed struggle for independence. The French Foreign Legion has been called in to protect French interests and suppress the rebellion."
Still in his coat and tie, Simon rides in the back of a truck with other recruits and soldiers. Some of the guys laugh at Simon for wearing a suit. The truck drives into the fort and a legionnaire checks out his belongings. He throws most of the things into a box to be kept until Simon gets out of the legion or dies.
Flashback. Simon is in the luxurious library of a fancy home. He reads a book of poetry. A pretty, young woman comes in to tell him that dinner will be in one hour. She also asks him if he is hiding in the library? He says no. He appears to like this woman very much.
Back to the present. Simon is put through basic training while at the fort. In the mess hall the recruits eat at a table set directly across from a table where the full legionnaires sit. The legionnaires and recruits stand at attention before their dining places and the legionnaires sit down first. Then a legionnaire tells the recruits that they may sit down.
An officer comes into the mess hall and everyone has to jump to attention. He tells the trainees welcome to Mascara. He is Lt. Thiebaud, their commanding officer. Sgt. Crepelli and Corporal Muller will turn the trainees into soldiers.
The trainees are now wearing green berets and khaki uniforms. An instructor tells them that the Algerian rebels want the French out of Algeria. The rebels are called the Fellaga. Their methods are those of any terrorist. Their favorite weapon is the explosive and many a Legionnaire has lost his limbs or even his life due to these explosives. The Legionnaires' job is to flush out the rebels from the mountains. He picks up a can on the table revealing a hand grenade underneath it. He warns them not to dine with the Fell.
The fellows run in formation and the instructor points out the captured deserters being hit with knotted ropes as they crawl on their bellies on the ground.
Laying on their bunks in the barracks, the guys start bitching about how bad things are in the Legion. One of the fellows, named Vasco, wants out already. The sergeant and corporal come into the barracks and start throwing on the floor bed mattresses, towels, etc. The men will have to clean up the barracks starting as soon as the sergeant and corporal are gone.
The sergeant sees a fellow who keeps making the same mistake on the obstacle course. Hitting the fellow in the mid-section with the butt of his rifle, he asks the trainee how many times does he have to correct him for committing the same mistake? Murray has a strange look on his face, so the sergeants asks him if he disapproves of the punishment? Before Murray can say anything, the sarge pulls a pin from a grenade and tosses it to Murray. Murray catches it and quickly throws it over a wall where it explodes. Sarge congratulates Murray and says the trainee will be going to the seaside where he will bring sarge back some saltwater. Murray is a bit stunned because he knows that this will be a four hour run.
A Belgian named Dupont takes Murray's canteen and pours out some of the water. He then pisses a bit of urine into the canteen. Following that he puts salt tables into the mixture. He tells Murray to shake the mixture up. Murray is to hide behind a thick bush and stay there for four hours. When the time has passed he is to run back to the sarge with this canteen of "salt water".
As he sleeps, he dreams of dancing with his girl back home.
Flashback. Murray complains that he didn't get into a single British regiment, so his girl won't take him seriously. The older men in his family and social circle keep telling him that "a soldier must find a proper war" and asking him what is it that Murray does? Nothing, really, as of yet. When he doesn't respond to the question at the dinner table, everyone, including his girl, laugh at him.
Back to the present. Murray comes running up to the sergeant's room and hands over the canteen to him. The sergeant takes a mouthful of the liquid in the canteen and then spits it back into the canteen. He says that Murray is dismissed.
In the barracks, Murray says that Dupont is a genius. Dupont is flabbergasted that it worked! Murray is a bit shocked that Dupont didn't really know it would work and calls him a son-of-a-bitch while laughing about the incident.
The trainees are crawling a long distance. The sergeant comes over to Rodriguez and pushes his chest down onto the ground saying that the man can't even crawl right. Rodriguez gets up and is going to say something, but another trainee, Dupont, jumps up and asks the sergeant: "With permission, sir." The sergeant nods his head and Dupont slugs Rodriguez in the face and the fellow goes down. Dupont calls for Murray to help him and the two of them start wailing away at Rodriguez. The slugging trainees did not do this for the Legion, but more to save Rodriguez from a great deal of harsh punishment. This satisfies the sergeant and Rodriguez gets out of some real punishment.
At mess hall Dupont tells Rodriguez he is very lucky for the sergeant would have "kicked the shit out of you". He says he and Murray did Rodriguez a great favor. The guys start complaining about there being too little food and Dupont says this is just one of the ways the Legion beats them down. Another fellow says that the Legion treats them like criminals. Rodriguez comments: "Some of us are." Vasco says he is going to say something to the corporal about this situation.
When all the guys are sleeping in their bunks, Vasco returns from town drunk saying he has been with some beautiful women. He collapses. Early the next morning, Murray wakes up and sees that Vasco's bunk is empty. He wakes up Valdez and Dupont telling them that Vasco has deserted. They go outside to see if they can see the trainee, but he is no where in sight. They go back to the barracks.
The trainees are sitting with their backs to the barrack's wall when a jeep comes into the fort. In the back of the jeep is the dead body of Vasco. His upper body and face are caked with blood. Even his hands and forearms are completely red.
Dupont and Murray come up to the commander and the corporal. Dupont points an automatic weapon at the two men. The commander tells Dupont that Vasco deserted last night and was caught by the Fell. "He was tortured and left to die." He adds that the Legion can't protect the men, if the men don't follow the rules of the Legion. Dupont relaxes his grip on the weapon and the commander takes the weapon from him. He now tells the corporal to take Dupont to the "tumbo". Meanwhile, Murray will lead all the men in the unit in group punishment.
The trainees have to fill their backpacks with stones. The men then have to squat down and walk. The corporal says the men have Dupont and Murray to thank for this. The men are really angry at Murray. After awhile they have to crawl along the ground. Then they march holding their rifles over their heads. After that, they have to repeat the same routine again.
The commander pulls Murray out of the line. He asks the trainee if he has ever heard about Legionnaire prison? He could have sent Murray to Colomb-Bechar, but he did not. Why? He did so because he believes that Murray and Dupont can make good soldiers. He adds: "Do not prove me wrong."
After the men finish with their punishment, the huge Schreiber comes over to Murray, grabs him by the throat, and pushes him up against a wall. He then spits into Murray's mouth saying thanks for the punishment. He then releases Murray.
Dupont has to dig his own "grave" and then lay in it. The corporal kicks some dirt onto Dupont's face while Dupont lays in his grave and then covers the grave with a tarp. There Dupont has to remain until he is told to come out. Murray is placed on guard duty. After guard duty, Murray rushes over to check on his friend. There is a guard there, but he lets Murray check on his friend. Murray sees he's okay and gives him a bottle of liquor. Dupont is grateful.
In a graduation ceremony, the commander takes off the green berets of the trainees and replaces them with the white caps of the legionnaires. The commander also gives Murray back his book of poems.
The new legionnaires watch as six prostitutes are put on the back of a truck and driven away. The women wave goodbye to Murray and the others.
Murray asks Dupont why he joined the Legion? He says he needed a place of lay low. And his brother was in the Legion. Dupont now asks Murray the same question. sMurray says his father died when he was very young. He grew up on stories about how his father was such a big military hero. It was only much later that that he learned that his father was still alive when Murray was 15 years of age. And he still hasn't met his father.
The fellows are now fighting the Fell in the mountains. Murray is pretty brave. He climbs up the steep mountain side and throws a grenade down that knocks out the heavy fire from a particular rebel site. When Murray goes down to check on the damage, he finds two rebels dead. He then takes two Polaroid photos. When Murray brings the photos to the commander, he gets commended for doing some good work out there. Murray is pleased to get the praise.
Now the men will move to another ridge. They are to go over to the other side of the ridge and confront the rebels there. Murray runs back, but drops his Polaroid camera. It goes inside one of the caves below him. When he and the other soldiers move out, he stops to go get the camera. With his flashlight he finds not only the camera, but a whole stash of weapons. He fires his automatic weapon at someone moving around. When he checks the body out, he discovers that it's a small boy. He brings the body of the boy out of the cave.
Murray runs into a rebel that tries to shot at him, but his rifle won't work. Murray just stands there as the face of the dead boy flashes in his mind. Dupont asks him what the hell is he doing and Murray apologizes several times. He says he killed a child and that it happened so fast. He goes on: "This is all too real. What the fuck am I doing here?!"
The legionnaires reach a small farm. When the owners of the farm are not forthcoming with information about the rebels, the extended family is pushed into the small farm house. Then the thatch roof is set on fire. After a little while, the family comes running out. The soldiers grab the last fellow coming out of the farmhouse. The soldiers walk behind the fellow as he takes them back up into the mountains. He leads them right into an ambush. A shell hits the prisoner in the lead of the group and he is dead. The legionnaires take cover. They start taking casualties quickly. Rodriguez is badly wounded.
Two legionnaires have died. The men sing a song for the dead.
The lieutenant tells the corporal to get photos of the dead rebels, but they no longer have a working camera. At night a soldier named Schreiber and Murray go up where the Fell were firing from. Since the Polaroid camera is broken and they have to I.D. the dead rebels, the two legionnaires have to cut the heads off the dead. Murray is disgusted by the very idea. The other fellow gets busy cutting. He says that Murray is not a man, but he still insists that Murray has to cut at least one of the heads off.
Murray has the job of carrying the heads to the lieutenant. He opens the sack, the lieutenant looks at the heads and is satisfied that these men are the ones they wanted. He says the men did a good job.
Back in the encampment, Murray looks at his blood-covered hands and forearms. He asks Dupont if they are just savages? What separates them from this Schreiber? Dupont says that Schreiber is a butcher. He now gives Murray some advice: "Don't feel so much." Thinking too much can make a soldier lose his mind. At dinner Schreiber is given some soup called in Spanish "the soup of the dead". Schreiber doesn't know Spanish and he drinks the soup. He is then told to have some more. Schreiber takes a ladle and puts it into the soup. He pulls up the head of one of the dead rebels. He then starts vomiting. All the others laugh at his situation.
The men have a party complete with music and prostitutes. They dance around having a good time.
The news on the radio is that De Gaulle is going to give Algeria back to the Arabs. Murray agrees with the action commenting: "Surely it's wrong to oppress people in their own country."
At night the men go downtown. They avoid a vendor who tries to sell them his goods. They see multiple movie posters featuring Bridgette Bardot on the walls of a building. They like that. They then go into a place called Jacques' cafe. Dupont introduces Murray to the pretty bartender, Patricia. She in turn shouts to Nicole to come out and meet the handsome Englishman. Murray is impressed by how pretty Nicole is. He immediately starts turning on the charm. He starts talking until the woman speaks to him in French, which Murray doesn't understand.
The guys get back to their barracks in a drunken state. On the floor by the door is an envelope for one Simon Murray. Simon sees it and picks it up. He reads the letter that's from his girlfriend. She writes: "I got your letter saying you'd actually gone and joined the Legion. I am more distressed than I can say. The thought of you being away for five years is driving me insane. I thought long and hard about this, but I didn't want you to to hear about this from somebody else. Rupert and I are getting engaged. I feel you are so far away, in time as well as in spirit. If only you didn't insist on being so different. You will always be close to my heart."
Murray wants to be alone with his thoughts. He goes downtown to look at the people and the things for sale. He goes into a cafe to have some hot tea. He speaks with the young waiter. He asks the waiter, if he gave the fellow some money, would he see to it that a book of poems got back to the return address on an envelope. He writes a note telling his former girlfriend congratulations and that he is returning what is her property to her.
Murray wanders over to a huge mosque. The holy man comes over and asks him if he wants to pray? Murray says no and explains that he just wanted to see this marvelous structure. The Muslim fellow tells him that this building at one time was the center of a university. Now the young men who would have attended the university fight the French. Murray is fascinated by the building, its history and the religious singing. Later he walks down a busy street and a bomb explodes just a couple of yards from him. Everybody starts running and Murray joins them. He keeps on running after he has left everyone else behind.
Murray runs into Nicole. She tells him that he shouldn't be here because it's dangerous. Murray is amazed that she speaks English with an English accent. She tells him to come with her.
Nicole drives Murray in a fancy sports car convertible out to the site of some ancient ruins. As they walk around the ruins, she asks him what was he doing in the Arab quarter? He says he wanted to get to know something about Algeria and its people. She offers to show him around. She sits down on a bench and Murray joins her. She says she is one of the "pieds noirs", black feet. Black from the sun of Africa where she was born. She is still very much a French colonialist. She says the land belongs to the French now. Nicole adds that if he wants to really get to know her, he must accept this about her.
Later Murray and Dupont go into Jacques' Cafe to talk with their respective women, who are, by the way, cousins. The men have both brought flowers. Nicole kisses Murray when she gets him alone. Later she takes him to her home, which is a huge place complete with inner courtyards with gardens in them. They dine alone at a huge table with the servants in attendance. Murray is at one end of the table and Nicole at the other end. He comes over to sit with Nicole and a servant brings his plate and silverware to him.
We next see the two young people in bed together (brief nudity).
The commander comes to the barracks saying that the Legion has just been given their orders. They are to resist all attempts by De Gaulle to free Algeria from the French. Their immediate job is to grab the airport before the rebels grab it. Murray runs over to the commander later and asks if it's really true that they will fight the French to hold Algeria? The commander informs him that his job is not to evaluate policy, but to carry out his orders.
The trucks filled with legionnaires move out to the airport. The pieds noirs welcome them with open arms as heroes. They arrive at the airport and jump out of the back of the trucks. Murray says he didn't sign up to kill Frenchmen. They have to push out the soldiers working for De Gaulle and the French government.
On the television Murray sees that there are tanks at the Champs-Elysses. Dupont says he told Murray that the pieds noirs would never give up. Dupont also says that the OAS will fight against De Gaulle too. Murray says that Algeria is going to get its independence sooner or later. Organizations like the OAS are just prolonging the pain of the fight for independence by planting bombs and terrorizing the Algerians. Murray says it's like the situation with his ex-girlfriend. He really loved her, but she was never going to marry him. He made the decision to cut his loses and get out and that is what the French Algerians will have to do too.
One night, Murray sees two legionnaires selling guns to the OAS. He wonders what he should do about it? One of the legionnaires is Dupont and the other is Schreiber.
In the morning Dupont returns to where the men are sleeping. Murray physically attacks Dupont for being a traitor. The other fellows break up the fight. The commander comes in and says to the soldiers: "It's over. We're heading back to Mascara." The coup leaders have surrendered.
Valdes comes over and asks Murray what's the problem between him and Dupont? Murray says Dupont and Schreiber are selling Legion arms to OAS to make extra money. Valdes tells him to wake up. Lots of men are going to leave.
The Legion is pulling out from the airport. Later Murray and Nicole have a big argument about politics. One night after guard duty, Murray steps into the barracks and finds only a few men left. He goes to see the commander. The lieutenant tells him that his orders are to consider the absentees as deserters and shoot them on sight. He adds that he also will have no way to protect Murray.
Murray starts walking to the city. He finds the Jacques' Cafe in ruins. He tries to find Nicole and runs right into her. She says she is leaving Mascara. Murray asks where is Patricia, her cousin? She is dead and Nicole says she will be dead also if he doesn't let her get out of here. She confesses that de Fell found out that she and Patricia were the ones planting the bombs. Murray has a hard time thinking about Nicole as a terrorist. She tells him he will never understand because he doesn't stand for anything. Murray tells her: "Yes, I do, but nothing you'll ever understand." Nicole says goodbye and leaves.
Over at the mosque, Murray sees Dupont and Schreiber torturing the waiter that mailed Murray's book back to his ex-girlfriend. Murray tells Schreiber to let the waiter go. He then tells Dupont that he is sorry about what happened to Patricia, but this is not the answer. Dupont explains that he's out of the Legion and with the OAS. Murray says it isn't fair of Dupont to lead these former legionnaires into a situation where they will all have death sentences hanging over their heads.
Over a loud speaker a legionnaire demands that the men inside surrender immediately. Dupont tells Murray and two others to leave now. He will be out a little later. Murray and the two others walk out of the mosque. While talking with the commander of the operation, he hears two shots. He pulls out his pistol and starts running back into the mosque. There is Dupont executing the Muslim men who are suspected of being with the Fell. Murray shoots Dupont before he can shoot another Muslim. Dupont points his pistol at Murray, but he doesn't pull the trigger. He falls down.
In his tie and coat Murray runs over the sand dunes.
Three years later. The waiter who sent the book back to Murray's ex-girlfriend comes to Murray and gives him back the book of poems. Murray asks: "How the hell did you get your hands on this?" The fellow looks to his right. Murray follows suit and sees his ex-girlfriend standing there. He walks over to her and they kiss. Now they walk arm in arm.
"Simon was promoted to Chief Corporal and then Sergeant, winning the coveted 'Kepi Noie'. He declined the chance for officer training and left the legion, having fulfilled his five year contract. Within a year of leaving the legion, Simon married Jeffa. They are still married today."
Spoiler warning. Young man Simon is a bit of a whimp. People laugh at the fact that he has not been able to get into any English fighting regiment. Even his girlfriend Jeffa laughs. This is all too much for Simon and without telling anyone, he runs off to join the French Foreign Legion. They say the army can make a man out of a boy and this is exactly what happens to Simon. Then he is betrayed by another woman who he likes a lot. All this is set in French Algeria against the background of an attempted military coup, which the Legion becomes a part of. This change of events really changes Simon's world And then good news comes his way.
The movie is enjoyable and there's quite a bit of action in it. And there's a twist in the story which is pretty neat. Paul Fox (as Simon Murray) does a good job of acting.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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