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I am working a librarian in the french equivalent of the British Council,
Quito, Ecuador, South America. A long long time ago, when I was still
in France, a friend of mine lend me a copy of Shoendoerffer's novel, "Le
crabe tambour". I never forgot this small pocket book, which surprisingly
enough was not published anymore.
A few years later, working in the Alliance Francaise of Quito, I found out an old video copy of the movie. Its quality was definitely not top notch, for it had been taped from the french TV in the 80's. The sound was quite bad, making it uneasy to catch the dialogues.
Even though, I loved it. Definitely. A few months later, the video was removed from the library, because it was not an original. Of course, I took this one with me and brought it home.
Why is this film so magical?
Because it blends in a superb way the drama of history (more precisely, the bitter decolonisation years of the french empire in Indochina / Vietnam and Algeria), its heart-braking influence on the soldiers who fought these lost wars, philosophical reflections about the meaning of man's liberty to choose his own way (and the subsequent price to pay), beauty of the sea and the men who sail her, friendship, death.
As Kubrick's 2001, "Le crabe tambour" does not reveal everything at first seeing. Like a marvellous book, it is to be seen again, and again. Again for the beautiful acting of Rochefort, Rich, Dufilho and Perrin. Again for the harshness of the dialogues, and the importance of silence. Again for the magnificent photography of boats struggling in the cold and furious North Atlantic. Again for this unique and moving confrontation between history and men.
Just like in Kubrick's 2001, there is not much of action to be seen. Despite the different places it takes us through (Indochina, Algeria, France and sea), the film is much more like a long and uninterrupted dialogue. Two officers on a small boat, encountering each other on the common ground of their friendship for a third one, the absent one, the "crabe-tambour". Two old and battered military men, chasing a ghost, each one for his own intimate and imperious reasons.
So will we, one day, ask ourselves the same frightening question : "What have I done with my talent?".
For me, this is definitely worth a 10 out of 10. But I strongly recommend reading the book first, if can be.
CRABE-TAMBOUR's base-camp story is simple-- the antiquated officers of a functionless army spend a voyage home on rough North Atlantic seas recounting stories of a cavalier-soldier whose busted military career spanned France's last years of colonial globalism. This beautiful film (master Raoul Coutard's sea-footage is a film unto itself) is rich, ironically resonant, and in a wrenching last scene, comparable to Peckinpah in its regard for its stoic heroes, the last-men-standing at the sorry end of empire.
Le Crabe Tambour is like no other movie about soldiers that you will
see, being a movie that in some parts resembles Citizen Kane, in other
parts Rashomon. The doctor on a ship's final voyage across the Atlantic
serves as the connecting link for the episodes that describe the title
character, Wilsdorf, nicknamed "Drummer Crab." At one point, the ship's
captain says Wilsdorf's two best friends were his black cat and the
doctor. From what happens, Wilsdorf had another best friend, the
captain, but that friendship ends as a result of events described in
Wilsdorf's adventures start off as picaresque, but they become grimmer as he takes a role in a military conspiracy, details of which are only vaguely described. You have as characters in this movie older soldiers the captain, the doctor and the chief, and Wilsdorf, who is not shown as aging. A nurse at the harbor the ship stops at comments that usually ship's doctors are young. But Le Crabe Tambour is about old soldiers fading away, all except Wilsdorf, who is only shown through the memories of others.
Pierre Schoendoerffer also directed La 317e section in 1967, which has the character Lt. Wilsdorf in it, then in a supporting role as a soldier at Dien Bien Phu. Wilsdorf was an Alsatian drafted by the Nazis who then became a French soldier and finally, a fisherman, with a boat off the fishing grounds by Labrador. Being a literary sort, Schoendoerffer does not explain everything at the end like a typical mystery story. Behind the opening and closing credits are images of ships beached on shore, wrecks that have outlived their usefulness, just like the ship's captain. The real French frigate, the Jaureguiberry, filmed for this movie on its last voyage, gets a mention in the last credit. When you see the ship's bow plowing through high waves in the North Atlantic, you also see the sides of the ship, with rust patches on it. The ship, like some of its passengers, has reached the end of the line. Le Crabe Tambour is not about just the adventures of an errant soldier, but is an attempt to put on screen the meaning of life for career military men at the end of their careers, with one, the ship's doctor, having a last chance to find out the truth about Wilsdorf.
I doubt that the French movie industry will finance another movie like Le Crabe Tambour, which is an example of "art for art's sake." I saw the movie on the Image laserdisc of the movie, an Interama Video Classic. The LD version had English subtitles. The movie was released overseas in 1977, but in 1977 there was almost no distribution anymore of subtitled foreign movies in the United States. Le Crabe Tambour only made it to New York City in 1984 for a short run. There is a DVD version of the movie now on sale in France, but like most French movie DVDs, that DVD has no English subtitles. So, Le Crabe Tambour falls by the wayside, even though its subject, soldiers' fates, is as timely as ever.
There are many war movies, but few movies about war. War movies are usually action movies set during a war. Other movies deal about war itself, why the people do it, why they enjoy it and suffer from it. Like Apocalypse Now or the Thin Red Line, The Crabe-Tambour is about war, though, unlike these movies, it shows little of it. It tells the story of Wilsdorf, a.k.a. the "Drummer-Crab", a French officer in the colonial armies, who witnessed (and took part in) the fall of the French empire after WWII. The man himself has become a legend and lives in the memories of fellow soldiers, who tell different tales - fantastic, ironic - about him. Wilsdorf appears as an elusive and shining ghost, a youthful figure of their past, who is still roaming the world as a free man while they grow old and embittered. Some may find there both a dubious fascination for the military (strongly reminiscent of Hugo Pratt's Corto Maltese series) and nostalgia for the colonies. However, it's so beautifully filmed that this can be easily forgiven.
This was an amazing movie to look at--the footage of the North Atlantic
was gorgeous and breathtaking. I can really appreciate all the trouble
everyone went to making this film. However, apart from the great
cinematography, I found the movie not particularly interesting. I think
that is because the film is told in the form of flashbacks from several
different people--it tends to bounce around a bit and can lose the
viewer in the process. Getting lost was not as big an issue for me, as
I am a history teacher. However, many non-French viewers will not
understand the context for what occurs in the movie and the flashbacks
will leave them baffled.
FYI to anyone wanting more background info--Following WWII, the French were trying desperately to hold on to the colonies it controlled before the war. The movie begins with the French in Indochina (Vietnam). They are continuing a war that had actually begun before the Japanese took over Vietnam. In essence, when the Japanese left, the war between the French and Nationalists resumed. The French lost this war in the mid-1950s and the United States entered this fray about a decade later.
Although there were some other small skirmishes along the way that were not mentioned in the film (such as the joint British-Israeli-French invasion of the Suez region), the movie picks up AFTER an abortive coup in the early 1960s. That's because Nationalists in Tunisia and Algeria had been pressing the French for independence (though many saw this land as an extension of France--not merely colonies--and losing it was unthinkable to them). This seriously undermined the French government and the military made attempts on deGaulle's life as well as attempts at a military coup. The officers involved were in some cases executed, imprisoned or fled the country. All this occurred because deGaulle's government reluctantly agreed to give up North Africa and the military felt this was a betrayal of France. The lead in the movie Drummer Crab was apparently one of those involved in these coup attempts. Another film that briefly discusses this same topic is the incredibly great film, Day of the Jackal (not to be confused with the supposed remake).
Movie is strongly architectured with flashbacks and could be understood at
first as the story of a pure and almost mythical officer
At that level, it is just a good story.
Much more interesting are the other characters (Doctor, Captain,
officer) that have been all fascinated by Wilsdorf. It is a deep human
picture of all our weaknesses and dreams. Everybody may find some points
these lifes while Wilsdorf is more an abastract heroe.
For French, debates about colonial period and fidelity is also
On top of that, some scenes at sea are great (I checked on a sister
during my military duty).
A chance remark leads three French naval officers to reminisce, together and privately, about the compelling young commander Willsdorf, nicknamed The Drummer Crab, recalling his exploits from the fog-shrouded rivers of Indochina to an attempted military coup in Algeria to his lonely, anonymous vigil in the North Atlantic fishing lanes nearby. Joseph Conrad would have loved this film, arguably the finest modern seafaring adventure ever made: a thoughtful and thrilling study of man versus the elements, where the past itself becomes an elemental force even more unyielding than the vivid Winter seascapes captured by Raoul Coutard's breathtaking cinematography. In metaphor, Willsdorf's fate is the fate of French colonialism, and only by pursuing his memory, through crashing waves and hissing spindrift, can his three erstwhile companions (a dying captain, a middle-aged medical officer, and a robust, veteran Chief Engineer) confront and endure their collective loss. This is a spellbinding film, rich in history and detail.
I saw this film five or six years ago after selecting it at random on
the "French" shelf of my local video store. It made quite an impact on
me, but I subsequently forgot the title and had to go to quite some
lengths to relearn it.
I wish I had the time and patience to write out my thoughts at length and with eloquence. Simply put, this feels like one of Joseph Conrad's sea novels, in particular "Lord Jim." It's gorgeously lit and shot -- in fact, I'd go so far as to call it a photographic masterpiece. Maybe the narrative unfolds a bit too slowly or bogs down here or there, but the film concludes beautifully and has haunted me ever since the one and only time I saw it. This may owe something to the casting of Jacques Perrin in the title role. For once here's someone with enough dash and je ne sais quois to justify an entire film spent in search of a supposedly legendary character. Even Brando somewhat disappointed in this regard in "Apolcaypse Now" (which, come to think of it, was very loosely based on Conrad).
It's inexplicable to me that "Le Crabe-Tambour" has never had, and likely never will, much of a following. For my money, the French have never excelled at "classical" film-making in the key of Hollywood. Nor am I typically a fan of that kind of thing; however, this film is an exception in either case. I just picked up the VHS box on the shelf at the verysame video store last night, which is what prompted my comment. I think I'll rent it again tomorrow.
This film made me realize there are many things I am not good at.
First, a mariner's life. Second, small towns & closed societies. Third,
military life. Fourth, French films with too little dialogue :)?
I was truly disappointed with this one. I understand there are "big philosophical issues" here, but sincerely, the only one I truly understood was the talent's parable (which we know since early childhood) and a mild idea of the "Heart of darkness", rightly induced by the mention of another of Conrad's novels, being read by the Captain.
Yes, the images are fantastic. The sea that almost got frozen seemed unbelievable, and some close up takes of the ship made it even beautiful. But the "antropological" slant of the ship's life, machines, fishermen, sailor's "humour", "stories" and appeals to authority finally got on my nerves. Let alone Lt. Willsdorff! I suppose the mention of a military officer arrying a cat ALL the time would make any true one sneer. 'Le Crabe-Tambour' was totally lost in his own world. He showed his leadership with the Africans, when he made them win a battle. When was later made "general" he seemed, for the first time, to enjoy himself, not studying them like, say, an ethnographer.
But it wasn't enough.
"The meaning of silences"... Good for putting yourself to sleep.
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