Classics Corner: March or Die (1977)

When I think of cult films from my childhood and youth, I immediately think of the films by Bud Spencer and Terence Hill. The duo, which achieved worldwide fame with its numerous charming films, is probably best known to most viewers for their so-called Italo-Western (or disputedly known as Spaghetti Western). I would like to discuss one after the other of their cult movies right away, but at this point it’s about a more “exotic” movie, in which Terence Hill plays the leading role. As a teenager it was a miracle for me to learn that Terence Hill, who had been an idol in my childhood, also played in other, more serious movies. So I went on a search for these movies and quickly found his leading role in “March or Die”, which is the subject of the review here today. The name alone reveals that this isn’t a comedy, but a more serious tone is struck.
March or Die is a film by director Dick Richards, shot as a British-American co-production in 1977.

As the title suggests, this is a war drama. A war drama set in 1918. The First World War just ended and Major Foster (played by Gene Hackman) returns with his troops on the train to France after they suffered heavy losses during the war. Of his 8000 soldiers, only 200 survived. During the arrival of the troops at the station, a recruitment campaign of the still infamous Foreign Legion takes place, which hires every soldier for itself without asking many questions. Thus the charming and charismatic petty criminal jewel thief Marco Segrain (played by Terence Hill) reports to the Foreign Legion along with many prisoners of war. In this way Marco manages to escape his two guards, who had arrested him for various jewel thefts, and leads to the fact that he is transferred with the company of the foreign legion, for which he announced himself, to the French colony Morocco at that time. Their mission was to protect an archaeological excavation threatened by the brutal and ruthless freedom fighters of Morocco.

The aforementioned Major Foster takes command of this campaign, not least because he is the only available officer who has served in North Africa. He is also one of the few who has been in contact with the leader, called El Krim, of the rebel freedom fighters. Major Foster is actually against endangering the lives of his soldiers because of some artifacts, but despite his rejection in Morocco immediately after his arrival begins the hard basic training of his legionnaires. During this training, the fresh legionnaire Marco quickly learns what it means to serve the Foreign Legion, because he quickly realizes for himself that the motto is either to march or to die. According to this motto, one of the recruits in the desert should be left behind because he can not keep the pace. Marco saves this recruit and brings him back under great effort in the fort, for which he is punished with the pillory.

After completing their hard training, which is marked by long violent marches through the desert, the company marches to the excavation site and begins to secure the area there. In the spirit of the well-known adventure films, a burial chamber is found which is said to be conducive to France’s fame. An incredibly valuable golden sarcophagus can be recovered. But the major acts arbitrarily and brings the sarcophagus to El Krim in the Bedouin camp to appease him. However, El Krim did not react to the Major’s offer, but used the general indignation about this outrageous desecration of the grave to unite different parts of Morocco and to attack the French excavation site together with full force.

This is the beginning of the decisive battle in the middle of the desert, in which Marco tries to stay alive.

The Foreign Legion is certainly one of the most notorious military institutions. Despite their fame and fabled history, there are not too many films that shed light on the fate of the companies and their so-called legionnaires. In my opinion, “March or Die” is definitely the best foreign legion movie ever. Some later films, such as with van Damme in the lead role, can not match the spirit of this film. Again, that’s what really appeals to me, what I feel to be authentic. The handling and presentation of the Foreign Legion are credible and not overdrawn. If you deal with the manageable number of film reviews you read here and there, that the critics wanted a more epic representation – especially the fight – but just the decision not to dare an epic overload of the fightscenes makes the movie so worth watching for me. There are enough (good) war movies to hit those over the top fighting scenes and I find it almost refreshing that this movie does not do it right away. Based on that stance the film seems to be dramatic, which does not seem set, but by the simplicity and the illustrated simplicity of war and conflict acts genuinely. Nonetheless, the final battle is one of the best battles I’ve seen in movies (- without the use of any CGI!). The battle is grim, realistic and brutal.

The film manages to be not too clich├ęd and in my opinion can also appeal to those who wouldn’t watch war movies otherwise.

All in all, the movie starts off a bit sluggish and needs some time to pick up speed. However, if you give the movie this advance, you’ll soon be rewarded with the great performance of the actors. The most famous are Gene Hackman, Terence Hill, Max von Sydow and Catharine Deneuve. All of them play their roles convincingly and skilfully. Especially the role Hackman plays seems credible. A major who has experienced a lot and is marked by war. I also like Catharine Deneuve very much in this movie. She brings a great contrast into the scenery and, despite her admittedly small role, isn’t just female filling material, but an independent, thrilling character. Her role as a war widow fits surprisingly well into the Moroccan setting and brings an important divergence in her femininity into the war situation. By taking a bow at the beginning of this review, I also want to mention the wonderful acting performance of Terence Hilll, who once again clearly shows in this movie that he can do more than just slapstick and comedies. Hill plays the transformation that Marco is going through well and you just have to empathize with his role. The other legionnaires make a good impression and convey the character of a mixed mercenary troupe that has nothing to lose.

In general, there is simply a very good acting performance.

The basis of this film, which makes it so worth seeing, are the locations. Mainly shot in Spain, the film with the backdrops and the sets enables the viewer to feel brought into the Moroccan desert. The scenes seem interesting and historically correct. A big plus!

One point of criticism in my opinion is the fact that there is only one real battle in this movie. It’s the culmination point of the conflict and as such well staged, but I would have wished for smaller skirmishes or a smaller battle in the first half of the movie. However, my criticism is somewhat mitigated by the fact that there are tensions between the Bedouins and the company, which are already hinted at before the bespoke awesome final battle and so the feeling of threat is maintained throughout the movie.

The plot can be described as solid and is not worn out or too repetitive in the context of the topic. It goes without saying that it is a plot that revolves around a war drama and a battle, which is why no masterly written plot twist can be expected. The narrative, however, seems conclusive and well executed. I especially liked the development that one of the main characters, Marco, goes through. This makes for an ending that isn’t boring and somewhat surprising. The Europeans, here primarily represented by Frenchmen, are not placed above the tribesmen and so the film skilfully avoids strict classifications into “good” and “evil”. The portrayal of the Bedouins is not a portrayal as pure barbarians and their charismatic leader El Krim seems equal to the opposing Major Foster. The Foreign Legion isn’t glorified, even though we empathize with the leading roles and hope that they don’t lose their lives. Rather, the viewer is well aware that the protagonists are in a situation in which they don’t find themselves voluntarily or reluctantly. The fact that they are supposed to risk their lives for an excavation site and the absurdity of this situation against the backdrop of the devastating experiences of the First World War, reinforces the feeling of the actual tiredness and the reluctance to fight again in another war.

In order to complete this review some aspects need to be answered:

Is it a film worth seeing?

– Yes.

Is it an underrated movie?

– Yes.

Is it a film that also appeals to viewers who usually don’t like war movies?

– Also yes.

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