December 28, 2010

The French Foreign Legion in film and in history

Filed under: Books, Europe, France, Germany, Media, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Peter Shawn Taylor explains how what was once the second most popular “adventure movie” themes has become all but invisible today:

The French Foreign Legion, steeped as it is in romance and adventure, had an entirely prosaic birth. It was a supply-side army.

In 1830, France’s reputation for continual political upheaval made it a magnet for Europe’s wandering class. Political agitators, disenfranchised liberals, left-wing revolutionaries and outright criminals from every country flocked to Paris. Such an agglomeration of potential trouble-makers proved unsettling for the newly reinstalled French monarchy.

At the same time France had recently conquered Algeria, rather by accident. (It’s a long story involving Napoleon Bonaparte’s unpaid grain debt, a flyswatter to the face of a French diplomat and the Gallic need to avenge even the slightest insult.) Maintaining the colony, however, was proving perilous for regular French troops.

The genius of the French Foreign Legion was that it solved both problems.

Refugees, criminals and agitators were pressed into a special unit of the French military created exclusively for foreigners. To make this urban renewal process as efficient as possible, no questions were asked as to the background of the recruits. And because French law prevented mercenary troops from serving on French soil, these soldiers were immediately shipped off to Algeria. Out of sight, out of mind.

After the “cowboys and indians” movies, Legion movies were the next most common adventure movie in early Hollywood. They faded from Hollywood’s radar even faster than the French empire did in the real world.

I remember reading a book about the Legion in French Indochina in the late 1940s and early 1950s (The Devil’s Guard by George Robert Elford), but I assumed it was largely fictionalized. Checking the Wikipedia entry, I see I wasn’t alone in suspecting it to be less than fully factual:

[. . .] published in 1971, is the story of a former German Waffen-SS officer’s string of near-constant combat that begins on World War II’s eastern front and continues into the book’s focus — the First Indochina War, as an officer in the French Foreign Legion. The book is presented by the author as nonfiction but considered to be untrue by military historians, and usually sold as fiction. In 2006 the online bookstore AbeBooks reported that it was among the 10 novels most frequently sold to American soldiers in Iraq (the only war fiction in the top 10, in fact).

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