Fort Saganne (1984)





Director:     Alain Corneau.

Starring:    Gérard Depardieu (Charles Saganne),  Philippe Noiret (Dubreuilh),  Catherine Deneuve (Louise),  Sophie Marceau (Madeleine of Saint-Ilette),  Michel Duchaussoy (Baculard),  Roger Dumas (Vulpi),  Jean-Louis Richard (Flammarin),  Jean-Laurent Cochet (Bertozza), Pierre Tornade (Charles' Father),  Sad Amadis (Amajar),  René Clermont (Monsieur de Saint-Ilette),  Philippe Deplanche,  Hippolyte Girardot (Courette),   Sophie Grimaldi (Lady of Saint-Ilette),  Florent Pagny (Lucien).

1911,the adventures of  Charles Saganne in the French Foreign Legion when he is posted to the Sahara in Algeria




Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.

Part I.

Charles Saganne as a kid looked at a mansion and was entranced. Then someone tells tell: "Beat it!" His mother pulls him away say it is not polite to be staring at other people’s houses. Much later in July 1911 as a young man he comes to stare at the mansion again. But this time the mansion is all run down and abandoned..

Someone calls for him. Dad’s waiting for us. Charles is planning to go to the Sahara. He is sailing out from Marseilles three days from now.

Charles is in the Sahara training native cavalry troops.

Colonel Dubreuilh is in France speaking to one of the government ministers. The Bedouins are rebelling.

Beware Saganne, her father is a De Saint-llette and her mother is a cousin of the President’s. So says a friend of Charles. He calls Charles a peasant boy and says they won’t accept him. Charles says he doesn’t care about all that. He is tired of being in this dead end place. Colonel Dubreuilh is coming for a visit. Things are heating up here.

Charles performs with his native cavalry for the Colonel. The crowd clap for them enthusiastically. Afterwards, there is food, music and dance. The Colonel’s attractive daughter goes close to see the pretty Bedouin dancing girl. The Bedouin dances for Charles and the daughter does not like it.

The Colonel’s daughter mounts a white horse and gives a nice demonstration of horse riding. Charles comes over to her and tells her to get off the horse. She tells him to leave her alone. He insists that she get off. She gets off and in the process falls forward onto Charles knocking him down and her down also. They get up and she lays her head on his right shoulder. This shocks the young lady’s mother. She rushes over to tell Charles to let go of her daughter. She slaps her daughter.

Lt. Saganne reports to the Colonel. The Colonel tells him they are heading south to Hodh. The daughter cries over Charles. She tells her maid that she doesn’t want to live without him. The maid tells her that he will be back.

Charles writes a letter to his brother Lucien in France. He says they are heading south with half the Sahara desert to cover. Mekalla who was their ally has now fled with his tribes. And there is another powerful chief: Sultan Omar, who wants holy war against France. He likes Dubreuilh as a leader, but the man keeps sending Charles out on mission after mission. Charles, however, says he likes these long, lonely treks with his assistant Embarek.

A long caravan with lots of armed men comes riding through the desert behind Charles. The camels carry a lot of supplies with them. Men complains that the Colonel is going to fast. The camels will drop dead in three days.

Charles asks a Jewish fellow, Mr. Hazan, why did Emir Mekalla’s tribe desert? Their commander Wattignie is no good. The two men have dinner with the Colonel at 7 p.m.

Charles hear a disturbance and checks it out. One of the men was trying to desert saying that they are traveling too fast. Charles goes to speak to the Colonel about it. The Colonel is sleeping. He awakens and complains that they are advancing too slowly. He wants to cover 40 miles a day from now on. Charles says nothing.

On the march, one man falls off his camel. They just leave him behind. Charles goes back to check on the man and finds him already dead. Many of the men are starting to die. A Bedouin watches them from atop a hill.

Charles catches up with his unit. The Colonel tells him that they will soon arrive at Wattignie’s fort, so try to look presentable. They arrive at the fort. The Colonel on his horse rides around looking at the troops. He then rides over to say hello to the women.

Sergeant Vulpi seems to despise Wattignie, but the Colonel sarcasticly tells Wattignie that he did a good job. He says that Sultlan Omar is just waiting for the chance to attack them. Mekalla broke his alliance with the Colonel to align with Sultan Omar. Now the French find themselves in a trap and could be forced out of the entire area.

The Colonel will send Wattignie back up North, will find Emir Mekalla and drag him back to the fort. Charles is given the job of going to pick up the fresh camels.

Charles takes Vulpi with him to get the camels. He sees the man who has been observing him. Charles tries to catch up with the man, but has no luck. He stops and the man comes up from behind him. He tells Saganne that the camel they took are his. Charles says the camels belong to the tit and the man answers that the Tit belongs to him.

Charles gives the man his pistol. The man gets off his camel and speaks with Charles, who says he will give him no more than 15 camels of his 40. The fellow tells Charles that his name is Amajar. Charles says he knows Amajar is chief of the Nemas with 50 warriors and married to Mekalla’s daughter.

Charles returns to the fort and collapses. He is taken to his cot and then he says all this is too much for him. He is too tired.

In the morning when Charles awakens he sees a native woman looking through the window at him. She leaves.

Young girls dance to clapping and the beat of drums. Charles gets up. He sits by a fellow who is playing the cello. Charles see the native woman again. The cello player asks him if he is tempted by the woman named Demla? Charles says he didn’t come her to abuse women.

Charles goes to his room and Demla is there waiting for hm. He sleeps with her.

The next day Charles and some others go to meet the Colonel at Mekalla’s place. The Colonel and the Emir have been negotiating for three days. The Emir wants to join with the Colonel again, but some tribal leaders are against it.

Charles meets up with Amajar again. They go to have some tea, but Charles is way laid by his Colonel. He tells Charles that Amajar has been a pain in the ass for him and it’s good Charles has befriended the man. He says he is counting on Charles to convince the man to go with the French and the Emir. When the Colonel leaves, Charles can’t find Amajar.

Charles writes a letter to Madeleine. Amajar comes into the tent to visit him. Amajar doesn’t understand what a man like Charles is doing here. And he also wonders what the French are doing here.

In the morning Charles learns that Amajar and his men have left. Now the Colonel tells Saganne to go get Amajar and bring him back. For seventeen days Charles and others trek through the desert in search of Amajar. Charles writes to his brother that if he doesn’t find Amajar quickly they may lose other tribes too. They reach the Erg Chech.

Charles and company get bogged down by a sand storm. He and his men have very little water left. The men continue on. His second in command Geindroz has stopped and won’t go on. Charles goes to speak with him. Geindroz tells him they are all going to die because of Charles. He doesn’t know where to find water. And he tells Charles that the only reason the Colonel took him along with him is because he had orders from Paris to get Charles away for the De Saint-llette girl. Everyone knows except Charles.

A man shouts that they have found tracks! Charles, Geindroz and Embarek check out the source of the tracks. They are Berabers bringing back prisoners. They attacked the village Ouled Cheikh. Embarek tells Charles to attack them and take their booty and women.

Charles and his men attack the Berabers. The two sides shoot at each other. Quite a few of the Berabers are killed. The rest run away. Now they have their water. They also have women and children.

Charles is told that some carabineers and their captain are nearby. Charles goes out to greet them. It is Captain Baculard, District 3, North Sudan. The Captain says Charles is in French West Africa. He says the people now with Charles belong to him. He has been after them for days. The Captain is so mean and unreasonable that Charles decides to head to the Senegal River and take the captives with him.

Now the Captain threatens to fire on Saganne and his men. Charles asks the man to let him pass. No. Charles gets off his camel He tells the Captain to kill him himself. The Captain won’t shoot him. The men pass by. The Captain takes out his pistol to shoot Charles, but his sergeant stops him.

They reach their goal. Charles says the trekked from the Mediterranean all the way to Senegal, a whole continent! Nuns takes the children from Charles.

There is a big celebration at night. Charles say one black man has grown attached to Geindroz and won’t leave them.

Now he has to go back to his task of finding Amajar. They come across a dead man alone in the desert. They find Amajar’s Nelmas. They are all dead. Geindroz says Charles was right. Captain Baculard is insane. Amajar is still alive. Charles will operate on him, although he has not medical training. Charles takes his left leg off with a big knife and saw. He then cauterizes the wound. After the operation Charles gets falling down drunk.

When Amajar awakens Charles tells him he know that Amajar was ambushed and that it was a slaughter.

Madeleine plays tennis. Charles in his uniform appears. The mother stands between Charles and Madeleine. Charles tells the Colonel he is resigning. The Colonel says Charles has many accusations against him. Charles says he is quitting because Captain Baculard massacred men under his protection in personal retaliation against Charles himself. The Colonel says, so what! The massacre scared the other tribes to align with the French and that is what the French wanted. He also says that Baculard has been ordered back to France .and will eventually go to the madhouse. And about the other matter. The Colonel says he did not bow to political pressure. He took Charles along with him because he needed him. Finally, Charles agrees not to resign.

Charles talks to his friend who was going to ask the pretty Arab dancing girl to marry him. He tells Charles that she just left him. He also says that the Arabs just think the French are dogs who unfairly pounced on Africa. Changing the subject, he says now the De Saint-llettes are going to crawl at Charles’s feet.

Madeleine sits alone by the tennis court. She gets up to leave. She walks through town and goes into a hotel. She goes into Charles’s room. Madeleine tells him that she loves him. He tells her to go home. She is furious and leaves.

The next day he eats with the Colonel. He tells Charles that with Mekalla he will crush Sultan Omar. And to do that he is sending Charles back to Paris as a celebrated hero. He wants all of Paris to be talking about him and about the Sahara.


Part II.

A train arrives in Paris. On it is the military hero Charles Saganne. He is welcomed by his brother Lucien, who tells Charles that he is going to get married to a woman named Marthe Vallin as soon as he gets his first assignment. Lucien also tells him that he failed trigonometry so he will not be able to be a warrant officer. This combination of events makes Charles angry and he scolds his soon to be twenty-one years old brother for being a failure. Charles quickly apologizes because he sees how hurt and angry Lucien is, but Lucien gets out of the coach and say he will see Charles later at the hotel.

Charles lectures on the Sahara, nine times as big as France. He asks for support for the work in the Sahara region. He says peace will be threatened there until the rebels just over the border are wiped out. He gets a big applause. In the audience Charles has noticed a beautiful blonde and he keeps looking at her.

When Charles see Lucien again he tells him not to marry because this will ruin his career. Marthe is waiting to meet him, but Charles says he has nothing to say to her. He even says that he will do anything he can to stop it.

The Minister of War tells Charles that there will be no actions across the border against the rebels. He says they may soon be at war with Germany, so he should forget about rebels like Sultan Omar. Charles needs a better job to occupy his great energy and talents. The Franco-Algerian Alfa needs a new director. Saint-llette needs to be replaced. The Minister goes on to say, by reading an article in the newspaper about him written by Louise Tissot, that he needs some more direction in his life. Louise Tissot is said to be France’s George Sand. Charles is very defensive and says he feels insulted by these remarks.

Charles finds out where this Miss Tissot and goes to her apartment to talk with her. Since he gets no response from ringing her bell, he opens the unlocked door and goes in. Everywhere he looks in the huge apartment there are piled up books. He keeps searching until his see the beautiful Louise lying naked on her bed.

She awakens and says: "Here you are." She has been planning for his arrival and then she fell asleep. He brings her a robe to her, as she continues to say that she planned all this out. As she continues talking, Charles virtually jumps on her and starts kissing her. He is so enthusiastic that she has to keep saying: "Easy! Easy!" He quickly takes his clothes off and goes back to the attack. She tells him to wait, but he quickly has sex with her and only then calms down. She says: "Young man in a hurry." Louise kisses him.

While he sleeps she works. When he awakens he tells her that he would like to stay with her. She asks for how long and he replies that he will do what she says. Louise falls asleep with Charles.

When they both are up Louise says she has to go see someone. She has put her life on hold for him, but doesn’t want get totally off her schedule. Louise says her work is here, his work is in the Sahara. Charles starts to get dressed and suddenly Louise is at his feet, grabbing his legs and asking him please, don’t go.

As a liberal she hates what he, a military man, stands for. Charles only says that now all that seems far away. They go back to bed again.

There is a knock at the door. Charles has received a letter. He sits and reads it. The letter is obviously very upsetting to him. Much later he tells Louise that he asked the army to insist that Lucien not marry. Lucien told the woman and she drowned herself two hours later. The story upsets Louise. She tells Charles he shouldn’t have done it and he shouldn’t have told her. She asks him to go. Charles leaves immediately.

Charles is back in the Sahara. He sits alone thinking.

Back at the fort Charles demands at Sergeant Vulpi get up and for him to drill his soldiers. When he leaves Vulpi comments out loud but to himself that Charles has gone crazy. Dubreuilh is no longer assigned to the Sahara. Charles tells Geindroz that they will be in this isolated place for awhile because Wattignie is taking it out on him. Geindroz comments that and Charles is taking it out on his soldiers.

In the night the local natives just left and that is never a good sign. He asks Embarek to check out what is going on. Charles writes to Madeleine saying he is so isolated here at the fort. Geindroz comes in and tells him it’s too late to woo Madeleine now.

Embarek returns to say that many warriors from three different tribes are going over to Sultan Omar.

Geindroz has told Charles that he can’t take this isolation anymore. He is going crazy. Geindroz now drinks way too much. Charles sees him dancing drunk on the fort parapets. Charles tries to to get him down, but Geindroz points a pistol at him. He says for once Charles is going to listen without interrupting. Geindroz says Charles doesn’t care about anything or anyone. He points his pistol at his head and fires. He falls off the parapet.

Amajar comes to the fort and gives Charles a camel saddle. He tells Charles that Omar wants to kill all the French. He will cross the border tomorrow or the next day. Leaving, Amajar tells Charles not to stay at the fort. Omar is coming.

Charles tells his men that Omar is on his way, but they will stop him at Esseyen. Vulpi thinks he’s crazy. They only have 48 men.

Charles writes a letter to Madeleine in his head saying that he loves her. He could not say this before, even to himself. Now he is a man in love and speaks of marriage and children. Does Charles want to commit suicide by battle?

The men are in place improving their defensive positions. He sees men on camels approaching them. But there is no attack. Then suddenly from atop a hill a line of men start firing into the French defensive position. The unit starts taking casualties. Everyone stays extremely low to the ground. Charles has to order his men to start firing back.

Then they attack. They should have stayed on the hill, because they start taking heavy casualties. The enemy has to retreat or be slaughtered. After a brief respite, a huge attack is launched on the French position. Once again, the enemy has to retreat.

At night the men hear the sounds of drums beating. Embarek tells Charles that the toughest fighters will now be coming. In the morning the attack begins anew. As the enemy gets close, Charles orders a bayonet attack. They kill all the remaining enemy and then run up the hill. When the Arabs hiding behind the hill see them coming they panic and starts running away. Charles stops his men and orders them to fire. When the enemy is gone, the men celebrate with dancing and hurrahs.

Charles sees Madeleine again and speaks with her. Charles knows the man with her. She leaves. Charles talks with Renee about Madeliene. Renee tells Charles not to worry about him as far as Madeleine is concerned. After all, he says: "Can you imagine the De Saint-llettes going to synagogue?"

Charles is made a Knight of the Legion of Honor.

Charles asks the De Saint-llettes for their daughter’s hand in marriage. Mother says no, but Madeleine, coming down the steps, says: "Yes, mother!" She rushes over to Charles and gives him a big kiss.

The couple marry. At night they sleep in the old mansion that, as a child, Charles would constantly stare at.

July 1914. At breakfast Madeleine stares at Charles resting his head on her right hand. She never wants to be apart from him. Lucien comes to see Charles and tells him he is leaving tonight. Jean Jaures was assassinated last night. He is being sent to Nancy. Lucien is introduced to Madeleine.

Outside Lucien tells his brother that he loves him even though he cannot forgive him.

World War I rages. Charles commands brown troops from Africa. Lucien is already dead. The Germans are attacking and the men have to oppose them. A soldier has Charles write a letter for him. He says that out of 50 platoons only 12 are left standing.

Of all people, Louise Tissot shows up working as a nurse. They hug. She says she has been looking for him for months. She is shocked when she feels the wedding ring. Louise asks if he loves his wife more than he loved her (Louise). Now she says she wants to have Charles’s child and that’s why she has been looking for him.

Charles has to leave. He leaves without saying another word. Charles receives two letters. He looks at Louise once again, gets in the truck and the truck pulls out.

Charles is in the trenches with his men. He orders a charge. The men proceed over a desolate stretch of land covered with bomb craters. When the artillery shells start dropping they all fall to the ground. His sergeant tells him that they can’t go on. The men are not following them.

Charles and his sergeant peak over the bomb crater and the sergeant knowing it is too dangerous pushes Charles back. Machine gun fire rakes the crater’s edge and the sergeant takes the hits and dies soon afterwards. Charles no goes it alone and is hit in the chest. He is in the field hospital. The nurse reads a letter from his wife. She is pregnant. A doctor comes in and tells the nurse to have the body thrown into the river. He needs more room.

Fort Saganne, 1922. Madeleine and her son attend a ceremony honoring her late husband. The little boy sees Amajar standing alone and runs out to see him. Amajar gives him his camel and saddle. The boy’s name is Charles Saganne. Amajar takes him for a ride.


Very good movie.  It's a long epic.  Its scope reminded me a little of Lawrence of Arabia, although Lawrence was a bit more exotic and larger than life.  But Charles Saganne is no slouch, but a decorated war hero.  The poor man, however, has no real moral compass .  He's like a bull charging around without much feeling for others.  He's way too consumed in his career.  Love will teach Charles a bit more humility and to care genuinely about others.  Great deserts scenes in the film.  Gérard Depardieu was very good as Charles Saganne).  And, of course, everyone knows about the beauty of Catherine Deneuve (playing the character Louise), but the one whose beauty struck me the most was the beauty of the very young Sophie Marceau (playing Madeleine of Saint-Ilette).  I will look at her in a new light and that's for sure.  Again I had to remind myself that I can't be rooting for imperialistic France, but you do get swept up in the story of Saganne. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



Historical Background:


1827 – the French blockade Algeria for three years because of what was regarded as an insult to the French consul in Algiers by the dey.

1830 – French invade the future Algeria on behalf of French and other colonists in the area.  Dey goes into exile.

1831  --  Algeria becomes home to the French Foreign Legion. 

Algeria is organized into overseas departments of France. They have representatives in the French National Assembly.

A rebellion arises that is led by Abdel Kadir.  It takes about a decade for the French to squash it.

by 1848 – nearly all of northern Algeria is under French control.

Algeria is occupied for 132 years.

beginning 1856 – Muslims and Jews are French subjects, but not French citizens.

1865 – Napoleon III permits Muslims to apply for full French citizenship. Few take advantage of it because of the unpopular restrictions involved in it.

1870 – French citizenship is made automatic for Jewish natives. This actually makes the Muslims angry and they now see Jews as French accomplices.

!914-1918 – in World War I a new generation of Muslim leadership emerges in Algeria.



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