Michael Paye

The only prospect more enthralling than a last stand is a Hollywoodized version of it. Zulu (1964) portrayed the 1879 battle at Rourke’s Drift as a story of valor and bravery, papering over the horrors of British imperialism in Africa; Saving Private Ryan’s (1998) last stand at Ramelle demonstrated how the resolve of strong-jawed, uniformly white Americans single-handedly defeated Nazi Germany; and We Were Soldiers (2002) conveniently erased the brutality of America’s illegal invasion of Vietnam in favor of brotherhood between principally white Americans and token Asian and black soldiers. Favoring nostalgic patriotism narratives, these films valorize honor and sacrifice, serving as an affective distraction from the viciousness of imperialism and American/British/Western exceptionalism. 

Netflix’s recent film, The Siege of Jadotville (2016), portrays the five-day battle between 160 Irish soldiers at Jadotville and approximately 3,000–4,000 Katangans, led by French and Belgian mercenaries. The September 1961 standoff remains one of the most successful and tactically astute siege defenses in history, with no Irish fatalities despite overwhelming numbers and firepower in the hands of Belgian and French mercenaries, who lost about 300 of their soldiers to the dug-in Irish forces. The following piece is not a review of the film, as such, but an analysis of how its replication of tropes and imagery from imperialist and racist war films contributes to a growing list of straightforward white-fight narratives that have a tendency to dehumanize black bodies and universalize white emotion on cinema screens. 

To understand how this battle can be viewed as a whitewash of a complex decolonizing moment, a brief overview of Ireland and Congo’s geopolitical positions is necessary. During its decolonization period, Congo faced a crisis with the Belgian-backed secession of Katanga, who wanted to maintain control over the rich mineral deposits in the region. The UN intervened in order to prevent civil war, as well as to ensure that communists did not gain a foothold in Africa. For Ireland, Congo represented a great opportunity for the new Irish state to make its mark as a valued contributor to international peace after centuries of violence at the hands of British forces. The conflict marked the first time that an Irish force was deployed by the state since the War of Independence (1919–1921) against the British army. Congo, therefore, holds a particularly powerful position in the Irish psyche.

American and British war films often simplify complex postcolonial conflicts in favor of typical war film tropes and imperialist war aesthetics: masculine brotherhood, macho valor, and white character development, as the troops are threatened by faceless, different-colored enemies who enter stage-right. These peoples’ lack of individuality and identity, their facelessness, and sheer mass as a collective, contribute to battle intensity and affective engagement with the more valued, usually white/British/American, lives. The Siege of Jadotville replicates these clichés and tropes, revolving around a set-piece standoff between Irish troops and faceless black attackers. With numerous reviews (particularly reviews in the Irish press) praising The Siege of Jadotville, or simply focusing on the recognition of the courage of Ireland’s A Company, one cannot help but feel the irony of a formerly colonized nation lauding the spectacle of mowing down colonized people, even if it is just a movie. Indeed, this film confines the actual politics of the conflict to paltry prattle between cardboard characterizations of men behind desks, so little is learned of the complex intersection between war and politics.

In the same way as a faceless Middle Eastern person can be offered as a sacrifice in the name of American ideology in any action film, The Siege of Jadotville is, in certain scenes, an orgy of violence against an unknown force, to make the enemy combatant the Other without any attention to their material circumstances. To simply claim that such is the reality of war completely ignores the continued dehumanization of black and brown bodies globally, from Obama’s drone-strike program to Trump’s recent Muslim ban and security fascism. The only enemy combatant with any personality in the film is a mercenary, Dag Hammarskjold, who Irish commander, Commandant Pat Quinlan, played by Jamie Dornan, meets before the siege. The mercenary insults his troops’ lack of battle experience, giving the Irish army the underdog status normally reserved for the national football team. As such, the film puts all its energies into setting up a valor-measuring contest between two white leaders, a clear-cut case of Irish good versus mercenary evil. A later meeting with a French white settler, Madame LaFontagne, makes mention of Belgian imperialist mining interests, but chiefly serves to demonstrate that the Irish have no backup. Meanwhile, the black characters are too busy getting shot to have a voice, apparently undeserving of further development in the film.

The Siege of Jadotville follows a long history of Othering in war films. A recent, critically acclaimed incarnation of this Othering includes Black Hawk Down (2001), in which a military drumbeat and horn section accompanies American soldiers tearing through Mogadishu in one of the major battles of the Somali Civil War. The relentless pace of the film only slows for the slow-motion death of an American soldier, as the pathos of his fall creates a sense of empathy that Somali combatants are not granted. The film makers rejected all charges of racism, even though they were clearly reinforcing a siege mentality racism that found its pinnacle with George Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Similarly, American Sniper (2014), though critically acclaimed, was criticized by many for its propogandist deification of Navy Sniper, Chris Kyle, who defended his use of the term “savages” to describe Iraqis. According to Kyle, “if you see the way these people act, you don’t know how any civilized person can do what they do. So, you’re not really viewing them as a person.”

Kyle’s sickening honesty raises a question around dehumanization in war movies. Should these films redress the balance and grant a sense of bodily value to “enemy” soldiers that soldiers themselves perhaps cannot afford to entertain, or should they continuously indulge in wet dreams of brotherly valor? In the case of The Siege of Jadotville, the soldiers of A Company finally get the credit and recognition that they were denied by army politics, but the Luba tribesmen who were present in the attacking forces still do not warrant investigation in accounts of the conflict, and no one cares that many of them were forced into an impossible situation. The film ignores the horror of their fate as they sporadically charge Irish soldiers with little or no cover for themselves. Therefore, The Siege of Jadotville unconsciously replicates the imperialist nostalgia for white last stands, which requires the enemy to value white death above their own lives, supporting a pro-imperialist vision of history that we in Ireland, up until quite recently, were on the wrong side of. Indeed, to be on the wrong side of history is something known to those soldiers in Katanga, who now play canon-fodder for European and American audiences. 

Ultimately, we are far too comfortable with watching the slaughter of black bodies on our screens, and not just in war films, but in news reports and television programs. Jamie Dornan’s belief that subtitling the Irish soldiers’ dialogue (due to their accents) would be “racist” reveals precisely how tone deaf to racism the film is, considering that The Siege of Jadotville perpetuates everyday racism. This is not to say that the film purposefully indulges in white exceptionalism, but perhaps contemporary war films aimed at Western audiences should start with acknowledging the material and emotive conditions on all sides of the conflict, instead of diminishing one side’s experience of conflict for the comfort of a play-by-play last stand narrative. 

Michael Paye is Associate Editor at Warscapes and a Fulbright NUI Visiting Researcher at Princeton University.