“The Siege of Jadotville” is the true story of a forcibly forgotten incident in the Congo Crisis of the 1960s. It brings to light the last stand of an Irish UN peace-keeping unit. It was directed by Richie Smyth based on the nonfiction book The Siege of Jadotville: The Irish Army’s Forgotten Battle (2005). The actor’s went through a boot camp, which given that this is the Irish Army, was probably as intense as Boy Scout Camp. Sorry about that one, but the incident was the first time a unit of the Irish Army was deployed overseas. One of the actors was the grandson of the Irish commander. How is that for having a technical adviser on set?
The movie opens with a title card that tells the non-professional historians in the audience that the situation in the Congo in 1961 was part of the Cold War conflict between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Rather than spend the first thirty minutes of the movie explaining what was happening, it summarizes by saying that there was a struggle for control over the mineral-rich Katanga province. Company A, 35th Battalion is being sent to keep the peace. There is a pre-deployment scene in a pub to remind the non-humans in the audience that Irish like to drink. The men are all green (and they are unseasoned) and are led by a military history buff Commandant Pat Quinlan (Jamie Dornan). He gives a speech about how they will make Ireland proud. By keeping the peace? Low bar.
When the unit arrives at Jadotville, since they are all Irish, no one mentions how similar the situation is to the movie “Zulu”. Intercutting to the cinematic slimy politicians informs us that besides being sitting ducks that are ill-supplied, this will not be Boy Scout camp. The local UN official Connor O’Brien (Mark Strong) implements Operation Morthor which is to get tough in Katanga. This will be a tall order because Company A is not only poorly armed, but the local civilians do not want their protection and the mining company wants them out. When the UN uses other forces to crack down on the Katangese government, O’Brien does not bother to tell Quinan that he has thrown a rock at a bee hive. The bees are local warriors (doing their Zulu impressions) and French Foreign Legion badasses led by Rene Faulques (Guillaume Canet). There is also a Simon Legree of a mine owner pulling the strings. The strings involve sending swarms of cannon fodder across open ground with predictable results. This being a war movie, each assault bumps up the last. The French wait until the second attack to break out the mortars and the third to call in their air support. These attacks require a cinematic load of ammo expenditure which is a problem since they were already low on ammunition. And whiskey.
“The Siege of Jadotville” gets a lot of good will from me because it sheds a light on a sadly forgotten heroic action. It needs the bonus points for historical accuracy and significance because it is otherwise an average war movie. Most of it is average. The acting. The dialogue. There is little character development and it relies mostly on stock characters like the stoical commander, the slimy politician, the cocky enemy commander, the mustache-twirling mine tycoon. The men of the unit are interchangeable and nameless. Contrast this with “Zulu” and you can see more copying would have been better in this respect. There are lame attempts at banter and soldier life. It does a fair job of intercutting between the boots on the ground and the politicians using them as toy soldiers.
The movie has plenty of action, but it is not combat porn. There are four separate combat scenes and they are competently done. All of the attacks are frontal, so there is little variety other than throwing in the mortars and the air attack. As I watched, I remarked at how lucky the Irish were in avoiding casualties. This seemed out of place in a modern war movie, but I subsequently have found that the lack of Irish blood conforms to the historical facts. A rare example of fidelity over volatility.
In conclusion, I have a soft spot in my heart for movies that bring obscure, but worthy historical events to the screen. I especially enjoy war movies that make me ashamed that the event they cover was not known to me. But the shame is overcome by the enjoyment of watching a war movie about a historical event and not knowing the ending. And I look forward to researching how true to the story the film is. Often what I find is the movie has shined light on the event, but the script has been less than faithful to the truth. “The Siege of Jadotville” has brought recognition to a heroic unit that had been largely forgotten. Not just forgotten, but in some ways maligned by the few who knew about it. This movie sets the record straight and sticks to the facts admirably. So admirably that the movie is less entertaining for the people who do not care about the history. Kudos for that.
GRADE = B-
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The Congo Crisis occurred between 1960-1965 after the Republic of Congo got its independence from Belgium. Part of the crisis had to do with the secession of a mineral-rich region called Katanga. UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskjold sent in peace-keepers, but refused to take sides. Part of the peace-keeping force was Company A, 35th Battalion led by Commandant (equivalent to Major) Dan Quinlan. The unit was mostly young men and this was the first time Irish troops had been used in an international affair. The 155-158 men were stationed at Jadotville and given the job of protecting the Belgian civilians in the area. This was ironic because most of the locals sided with the secessionists. Quinlan took steps to fortify his vulnerable position by digging trenches. His unit was lightly armed and had only a few Vickers machine guns and 60 mm. mortars. The siege was precipitated by UN diplomat Connor O’Brien who greenlighted a plan called Operation Morthor. The mission was to take positions in Elisabethville belonging to the Katanga government. The Katangese leader named Tshombe was ready for a fight and unleashed a force consisting of Luba tribesmen and Belgian, French, and Rhodesian mercenaries. Their leader was a French Foreign Legionnaire named Rene Faulques. The attackers used 81 mm. mortars and a 75 mm. field gun. The attack started during an open-air Mass. The warning was sounded by a sentry. The Irish held off the attack with withering fire and dealt with the artillery with accurate counterbattery fire. The siege lasted six days. At one point Quinlan communicated “We will hold out until our last bullet is spent. Could do with some whiskey.” (This line is in the movie.) Supplies were not forthcoming. The one attempt at a helicopter resupply resulted in tainted water. The defense was weakened by strafing and bombing attacks by a lone fighter jet. Eventually, the Irish arrived at the point where they could not have withstood another assault. Quinlan decided that continuing to battle would be hopeless, so he surrendered his men. Unbelievably, not a single Irish soldier was killed and only six were wounded. The besiegers suffered around 300 dead and about 1,000 wounded. They were held as hostages for one month and then released. They continued their service and then returned to Ireland at the end of their six month tour. The Irish government played down the siege with the implication that the surrender had been unjustified. No decorations were awarded to the numerous men that Quinlan suggested. The unit was tainted and “Jadotville Jack” became a synonym for cowardice. The guilt weighed heavy over the years and the unit was given the Presidential Unit Citation in 2016. Production of the movie may have had something to do with that.