Special Forces aka Forces Spéciales (2011) French Special Forces on a Rescue Mission in Afghanistan

Forces Spéciales aka Special Forces is an exciting although controversial new French movie with an exciting cast. Apart from the lovely Diane Kruger (Joyeux Noël, Troy) there are Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator), Benoît Magimel (Intimate Enemies), Denis Ménochet (Inglourious Basterds, Robin Hood), Raphaël Personnaz (The Princess of Montpensier), Alain Figlarz (Bourne Identity, 36), Mehdi Nebbou (Body of Lies) and Tchéky Karyo (Bad Boys, The Patriot). I am excited because I didn’t expect an action movie like this to come from France and on this type of topic. There have been a few recent French movies which were outstanding but they focused on WWI, WWII or Algeria, hardly ever are they dedicated to modern-warfare and the special forces.

This is contemporary, fast-paced, action-driven, kick-ass and very authentic. Think The Hurt Locker meets Bravo Two Zero and you get Forces Spéciales. The movie is dedicated to soldiers fallen in Afghanistan and to the journalists who risk their lives in war zones. The support from the French military is obvious, the gear that is displayed is amazing. Due to this the movie is extremely authentic. I’m not into weapons but I like authenticity and this is as authentic as it can get regarding the equipment.

The story is pretty simple. The French war reporter Elsa Casanova (Diane Kruger) gets caught by the Taliban leader Ahmed Zaief in Afghanistan. She has been conducting interviews with women and called the leader “the butcher of Kabul” in her articles. The last of the women she tries to interview warns her. They are both in great danger. Too late. Zaief captures her informant first and then lures Elsa into an ambush. He threatens to kill her and films the execution of one of her assistants and sends it to France. The French president and his advisors are informed of her captivity and decide to send Special Forces to save her.

The group of men manage to free her but when they arrive at the pick up place, the helicopter doesn’t arrive. Similar like in Bravo Two Zero, they cannot get in contact with anyone as their radio equipment has been destroyed. Time was a crucial factor in the escape and now that the helicopter won’t come, the Taliban leader and his men close in on them. They have no other choice and try to escape over the mountains. This is a catastrophe. Not only are they not equipped for high altitudes and snow but they are hunted by a large group of men.

They have to stop and fight more than once. They also need to decide at some point whether to defend villagers who have helped them against the Taliban  or try to save themselves first. Each of the men is trained in another specialty. The scenes in which the sniper is center stage are, as is usual, the most exciting ones.

The group is very likable and because these are men who have undergone an amazing training, there is a bit of superhero flavour. And they have managed to squeeze in a love story.

The strength of this movie, apart from the suspense, action and the amazing gear that is displayed, is the cast. This is one of the most appealing casts I have seen in a long time.

I also liked the score a lot but it’s not original. It’s heavily influenced by other movies. Gladiator among others.

All in all, this is a highly watchable, action-packed movie with a solid story and great actors and certainly a movie fans of The Hurt Locker and Bravo Two Zero should not miss.

I mentioned initially that this is a controversial movie but didn’t say why. As authentic as the gear and the initial scenes look, there are a few instances which are not logical later on. Agreed. The movie hasn’t received a lot of positive reviews by the French press because it was felt to be too propagandist. I’m not sure if any movie that displays army equipment and is supported by the military has to be called propagandist. Maybe it is because more than an anti-war message it carries an anti-Taliban message? In any case, it’s more of an action than a war movie, this should have become obvious by now. I suggest you watch it and let me know how you feel.

Here are two very different trailers which will give you a good idea.

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Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Maybe Inglourious Basterds is a good movie. Maybe it is not. In any case I have hardly seen any other movie being misspelled so often. That’s at least one achievement. “And the Oscar for most misspelled movie goes to…. “.

Inglourious Basterds is in many ways a typical Tarantino. If you don’t like Tarantino, you will probably not like this. It has graphic elements and there are a few moments of shooting gone wild like in any Tarantino. The score is also very Tarantino, although toned down.

The main story of Inglourious Basterds is a retelling of the end of WWII. It’s purely fictionalized and far from historically accurate.

We have different story lines that are all interwoven.

The Basterds are a group of American soldiers led by Lt Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), many of them of Jewish or German origin. They are dropped in Nazi-occupied France to hunt and kill Germans. They either club them to death or take their scalps. Brad Pitt is extremely good in the role of Tennessee-born tough-guy Raine who shows no mercy when it comes to Nazis.

Another story line starts with “the Jew hunter” Col Landa (Christoph Waltz) whom we meet when he is exterminating a family of Jews. One of the daughters, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) manages to escape. Landa is maybe one of the most annoying film characters ever.

The different story lines come together when Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a German war hero, meets Shosanna aka Emanuelle in Paris where she meanwhile owns a cinema. He plays himself in a movie about his exploits that has been  financed by Goebbels. He tries to convince Shosanna to have the opening in her cinema. It will be an event that the whole of the German high command, including Hitler, will attend.

Many people hear of this event, among them the Basterds. This unique opportunity to have the most important Germans together in one location for an evening gives more than just one group ideas.

At the end all the different storylines come together for an ultimate typically Tarantino finale.

As far as war movies go, this was quite entertaining but not exactly my thing. As far as Tarantino movies go, it could be one of his best. I did like a few elements but was surprised that there are so many scenes that come across like theater scenes and found them actually very boring. Despite the boring elements, it offers strong pictures, some really good ideas and the genre blend is interesting. It is not a movie I liked but I would highly recommend it as it is an original addition to the genre. Tarantino fans will watch it anyway, I guess. There is one thing I really enjoyed and that is how accents were handled. One of the rare movies in which this was handled with perfection. Most of the German actors (they are all internationally acclaimed), are either bilingual or very strong in English which was an asset.

Joyeux Noël aka Merry Christmas (2005) Christmas in War Movies III

This is not only the best of the three movies on the theme Christmas in War Movies that I have reviewed but it is one of my Top 10 favourite war movies. And definitely the one, with L’armée du crime aka Army of Crime, that is closest to my heart.

Merry Christmas aka Joyeux Noël is based on a true event, the so-called “Little Peace during the Great War”. It’s a multinational co-prodcution, in three languages, English, French and German, filmed by the French writer and film director Christian Carion. One of the most European movies of all time. It portrays cultural differences of the involved parties in a truly amazing way. It is one of the most outstanding anti-war movies and achieves to make a profound pacifist and humanist statement.

Pretty much like Stalingrad, Joyeux Noël focuses on very few people. At the heart of the movie are the soldiers in the German, French and Scottish trenches. The central figures are the three lieutenants of the respective trenches, and one or two of their soldiers.

After endless days of shelling, Christmas 1914 arrives. The soldiers in the three enemy trenches are having their Christmas meals. A simple meal, accompanied by a lot of whisky, in the Scottish trench, hundreds of Christmas trees and a frugal meal in the German trench and nicely laid tables, candles, wine and a sophisticated meal in the French trenches. Towards the end of the meal, the Scots start to sing and play the bagpipes. The German’s are startled at first and finally join in. Amongst their ranks is a soldier who was a famous opera singer (Benno Fürmann) in his civilian life. He leaves the German trench with a Christmas tree and walks singing into no man’s land until his angered lieutenant follows him. Meanwhile, the Scottish lieutetnant has also left the trench and approaches them. For the sake of the evening and their men, they discuss a ceasefire. All this time the French look at this with wonder and utter puzzlement, until their lieutenant joins in as well and they all agree on the ceasefire. The evening is spent with a mass (Gary Lewis is fantastic as the priest) and the fiancée (the very beautiful Diane Kruger) of the opera singe,r who has been there for this evening, sings for them. They also share food, drinks and get to know each other.

The next day they have a hard time going back to the normal routine of shooting at each other. They first agree on letting each other bury their dead and then start playing football until the shelling starts again. The Germans start first and so all the soldiers are allowed to seek refuge in the German trench.

The commanders of the three armies hear of this and all the involved parties are severely punished. If they hadn’t been so numerous they would have been shot.

What I liked the most about this movie is how emotional it is. Carion says in an interview that he wanted to remind us of this little miracle and to really experience it. He states that he is a pacifist and a humanist, in the sense of believing in human values. The choice of the three lieutenants was extremely important in conveying this. If I ever do a post on the most likable commanding officers in war movies, those three are all going to be on it. My personal favourite is the French lieutenant Audebert, played by Guillaume Canet. The choice of such a sensitive and fragile actor was a stroke of genius. The German Daniel Brühl is very good too, and so is the Scottish actor Alex Ferns, but they do not have the versatility of Canet. Lieutenant Audebert is a very determined but just and utterly emotional commander. He throws up at the beginning of the battle but still manges to give strength to his people, to guide them. Apart from Platoon’s Sgt Elias, Audebert is the most touching soldier I have ever seen. Brühl as Horstmayer is the most complex of the three, the only one who speaks all three languages and changes considerably during the movie. Ferns as Gordon is the one that men would want as their mate.

An absolutely outstanding aspect of the movie is the way it renders the differences of the trenches that do mirror the differences of the mentalities of the parties involved. This might seem clichéd for an outsider but if you are familiar with the cultures of those countries and know something about the life in the trenches you will notice how highly accurate it is.

The British trenches had the reputation of being very shoddy and muddy, whereas the Germans transformed theirs into real homes. The French on their side had the best food and coffee. The trench system is very complicated and the narrow steep walls didn’t allow outside orientation, that’s why they had a system of signs that showed them where which enemy was. We see the sign “Rosbif land” in the French and “Froggy trench” in the Scottish trench which is very accurate and funny.

It is after all also a humorous movie, especially in the French and the Scottish parts. The Germans are shown as more sober. One of the nicest touches of the movie is the story of the trench cat. Each trench believes the ginger tom is theirs. At the end of the movie the cat is caught with a bit of cardboard around the neck. He has become a messenger between the trenches and is duly  arrested for high treason.

If someone wanted to get familiar with war movies or never has seen one,  Merry Christmas is the war movie I would recommend he or she should watch. There is everything in it: tears and laughter, despair and hope, misery and joy, combat and trench life, criticism of the high command, class differences and a love story thrown in for good measure. 5/5

I couldn’t find an English trailer and attached a scene instead.

And the original trailer.