Black and White in Color (1976) – A Guest Post by nem baj

I’m still in a movie watching slump and that’s why I’m really grateful to have another guest post from nem baj for you today. His post is dedicated to a movie I haven’t seen yet. In all honesty, I hadn’t even heard of it although I’m familiar with many of Jean Jacques Annaud’s movies. 

In a nutshell: two French and German outposts in 1914’s central Africa, cut away from their respective metropolitan authorities, mimic the European conflict once they have learned its existence – six months after the hostilities have been declared in Europe. Focusing on the French, the movie is a satire of patriotism and the ‘civilizing mission’ of french colonialism.

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud may be known to younger audiences as the craftsman behind international productions such as The Name of the RoseSeven Years in Tibet or Enemy at the Gates, but he started his career in France by directing two little rebellious films, Hot Head (about local sports celebrity and politics) and Black and White in Color, which is a war movie based on an actual event. It is a comedy, cliché-based from the start, the Germans being organized and professionals, whereas the French spend more time speaking, eating and making love than preparing for a fight. Yet the latter are so vain they launch the first offensive, which ends up being a disaster. Now they’re scared and in a defensive mode – which means time has come for a radical change in leadership.

For the main weakness of the French is the way the small community in their outpost envisions exploitation: the locals are not considered as men, crooked shopkeepers and even more crooked missionaries exploit the populations for immediate profit, and the only French soldier, a sergeant (seconded by a handful of tirailleurs, professional Black soldiers), is only a few months from retirement, and has never fought a battle except maybe against the appeal of booze and local women (those battles he seemingly always looses).

However, a young educated geographer, a pacifist and a socialist, decides to take over after the defeat. He engages the village chief, using the antagonism between villagers and bush tribes, to capture fresh cannon fodder from the countryside. Then he appoints the local White bully as a staff trainer, and takes a Black woman, possibly of high rank, as his mistress. The result is a brand new force of African soldiers, which is used to launch a new offensive on ‘German’ soil, this time with better, though inconclusive, results. They start digging trenches similar to those appearing in French magazines… I won’t spoil the ending.

The whole thing is a cruel satire, the story of a ridiculous war fought by Black proxies on account of racist White trash. Whether you’re a French with self-irony or a fan of French-bashing, it will surely please you. But its strength lies in the fact that is quite witty. The role played by language barriers is both symbolic and hilarious. Also, on one hand the Africans are real people, with their own identities, language and distinct approaches to the colonizers – yet on the other hand the recognition of their social existence by the French geographer gives him more exploitative power than his predecessors ever had… which in turn seems to give new strength to the contestation of colonial power. And finally, the intellectual betrays his own pacifist ideals for the pursuit of glory, sending more men into combat… in the name of humanism.

PS: this review refers to the international version of the film, which gained the Foreign film Academy Award in 1976 in the name of Ivory Coast, where it was shot. On first release, the movie received extremely bad reviews in France, then the international version was re-released in France after the Oscar…

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7 thoughts on “Black and White in Color (1976) – A Guest Post by nem baj

  1. I’m glad you reviewed this as not only have I never heard of it before but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a war movie set in sub-Saharan Africa.
    I haven’t looked if I can get it yet but I will.
    Why did it get bad reviews in France?

    • nem baj says:

      I wasn’t correct in writing ‘extremely bad reviews’: they weren’t all bad. Most French critics just didn’t know what to do with it, and the film fell flat in theaters (meaning the audiences didn’t know what to do with it either).

      Aside from its cinematographic flaws (it’s clearly a beginner’s work), the hostile reactions – some from top newspapers – centered on the supposed ‘absence of politics’ and ‘racism’ in the film. Often, the left wouldn’t like it because it wasn’t ideological enough, and the right wouldn’t like it because it didn’t pay tribute to the ‘positive sides’ of the colonial enterprise. The film didn’t fit the passions of the time (I’m not sure they’ve changed so much, by the way).

      U.S. critics, coming from a different historical perspective, didn’t have this problem and could probably more easily accept that one would, in the same film, condemn and understand. And make us laugh.

  2. Guy Savage says:

    I really liked this film when I watched it. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. The most interesting thing I carried away was the impression of remoteness–these people were far away from the action and only got the news months after it happened

  3. the war movie buff says:

    I love good satire so I am intrigued by this. Nice review, Nem. I was not really familar with this. You make the French military sound comical which makes me wonder if the movie is a documentary. Get it.

    • nem baj says:

      Actually, the ‘French military’ here is just one career sergeant in a godforsaken, non-strategic place.

      Due to conscription laws as well as colonial administration needs, the French Third Republic entertained a large number of com and non-com officers who never saw combat for decades, many of which enlisted mostly, if not only, for the social status, treatment, pension… and easy work.

      Making fun of these types was quite common in French literature and theater before WWI.

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