Though gorgeous to look at, thanks to sensuous imagery created by cinematographer John Alcott, the French Foreign Legion drama March or Die is an absolute mess. The story is unfocused, the characterizations are unsatisfying, the villain is laughably miscast, and the filmmakers seem confused about which characters should engender audience sympathy. The fact that the picture is more or less watchable, despite these huge flaws, is almost entirely attributable to Alcott’s photography and to the charisma of leading players Catherine Deneuve, Gene Hackman, and Max von Sydow.
March or Die begins in a tellingly murky fashion: A few years after the end of World War I, Major Foster (Hackman) leads his troops back to France following a bloody deployment. In a tense meeting with his superiors, American-born Foster is assigned to protect a group of archeologists led by François Marneau (Von Sydow) during a dig in Morocco, where Arab locals are hostile to foreigners. Foster frets about the possible human cost, suggesting he’s a noble soldier who cares only about his men. But then, as soon as Foster starts training new recruits for the mission, he’s depicted as a heartless bastard who takes sadistic pleasure in abusing subordinates.
Confusing matters further is a long sequence of the soldiers traveling to Morocco. One of their fellow passengers is Simone Picard (Deneuve), who falls for Marco (Terence Hill), a part-Gypsy enlisted man. Foster expends considerable energy humiliating Marco, even though it’s plain that Marco is a favorite among the men because he looks out for gentle souls like the soft-spoken musician who’s withering under the rigors of military service. Upon reaching Morocco, the troops are confronted by Arab leader El Krim (Ian Holm), who is determined to derail the French expedition. Turns out he and Foster have history, meaning a showdown is inevitable.
There’s enough story here for a dozen movies, or at least one rich epic, but co-writer/director Dick Richards can’t corral the material. Working with co-writer David Zelag Goodman, Richards fails to guide viewers through this maze of interconnected narrative, and he fails to define his characters as specific people. There are tantalizing glimpses of internal life, like the vignette of Hackman lounging with a Moroccan courtesan, and there are poetic moments, like the final fate of the musician. However, none of it hangs together, and false notes abound.
Hill, the Italian-born stud who starred in a string of ’60s and ’70s Westerns, is physically impressive but blank in dramatic scenes, while Holm, the Englishman best known for fantasy films like Alien (1979), derails his performance with bug-eyed overacting. Hackman plays individual scenes beautifully, though each seems appropriate for a totally different character, and Deneuve merely provides alluring ornamentation. Worse, the florid score by Maurice Jarre sounds like a satire of his legendary work on Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
March or Die: FUNKY