"March or Die," now at area theaters, might have been commissioned by the producers of Marty Feldman's "The Last Remake of Beau Geste" to provide a suitable frame of reference for audiences too young to recall "Morocco" or "Beau Geste" or even "Abbott & Costello in the Foreign Legion." However, it seem to have been made coincidentally by a different group laboring under the delusion that an irresistibly rousing romance about Foreign Legionnaires was being committed to celluliod.
Far from reviving a ventage adventure movie genre, "March or Die" emerges as a laugher. Perhaps not as hilarious as "Viva Knievel!" or "Exorcist II" at their egomaniacal heights but definitely one to catch if ridiculous movies turn you on. In its stalwart squareness, "March or Die" provokes merriment of a more spontaneous and satisfying kind than one encounters in Feldman's relentlessly facetious parody, proving again that nothing is quite as funny as deadpan earnestness with its pants falling down.
It's apparent that something is amiss from the opening scene. Battered Legion veterans of the Western Front disembark at a French railroad station and a woman with a babe in her arms suddenly breaks the portentous silence by warbling the Marseilliase, accomapanied momentarily by the other extras. One gathers that director Dick Richards and writer David Zelag Goodman conceived this as a Magical Moment of Motion Picture Pathos, but it's a beau geste that falls flat, setting a fateful pattern for the rest of the picture.
The filmmakers seem determined to reach for poignant, apiphanous effects without bothering to construct a dramatic foundation. Moments after the Marselliase gambit, the Legionnaires suddenly begin serenading their gloomy commanding officer, Gene Hackman, with a bewildering round of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." You can't help wondering if "March or Die" was meant to be a singalong feature. No such luck. Richards and Goodman merely imagine they can be evocative in a vacuum.
The problem for audiences is that the laughable elements don't burst gloriously to the surface until the climax, a showdown in the desert which finds the embittered Hackman going bonkers just as his poor, outnumbered Legionnaires are threatened by hordes of fanatical, bloodthirsty Moroccan tribesmen. The earlier scenes are miscalculated in ways that invite confusion or incredulity, but it takes the climax to prove that the only way to enjoy the film is to take it as unintentional farce.
The comic roof starts to cave in when an Arab laborer suddenly plunges through the sand into the bidden tomb of "the Berber Joan of Arc," whose gravesite is being excavated by archaeologist Max von Sydow under the grudging protection of Hackman. The plunge itself is a funnier sight gag than and single moment I can recall from "Last Remake," and the humor is enhanced when we're shown the "treasure" von Sydow craved, a coffin that might have come from the lobby of a semi-opulent picture palace in the '20s.
Hackman oversteps his authority by giving the coffin to Arab chieftain Ian Holm, who decides to attack the expedition anyway. As Holm's warriors charge down the sand dunes. Hackman begins falling apart, snarling "Get my tunic," whacking his poor orderly with a riding crop and demanding that the men dig trenches. The orderly, played by Rufus, who was the father of Jonah in Alain Tanner's "Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000," keeps pleading," Please, sir, your orders, the men are waiting for your orders," while the audience commences rolling in the aisles.
Hackman pulls himself together long enough to order a defensive formation. The Legionnaires fight off a frontal attack. Holm cues a flanking assault. When this manuever is called to Hackman's attention, he shouts, "Somebody cover the left flank!" Immediately it occurs to yout that there's got to be a follow-up scene on the right flank, but you dismiss the possibility as too absurd even for a movie up to its ears in absurdity. But there it is: Holm cues his third wave, forcing Hackman to turn in the opposite direction and shout, "Somebody cover the right flank!"
It's that kind of silly movie. After losing perhaps 90 per cent of his force. Holm calls off the attack and informs the surviving Legionnaires, "I let you live so what happened today will be known to the whole world. We will resist all foreigners!" A fitting bluff from the sort of chieftain who could earlier sputter, "French roads! French signs! French food! That is a worse rape of our cultural heritage than any other!"
The must be kidding, you tell youself, but they aren't and that's the inavertently funny beauty of it all.