But what "March or Die" lacks in the sheer epic expanse of other big-name war movies, it more than makes up for with carefully measured performances by the principal characters, not the least of which is that turned in by Gene Hackman, who plays a certain Major Foster - a cynical but nonetheless highly disciplined former American officer, booted from the "vaunted" army of America, who has found his military niche in the austere, almost mysterious world of the French Foreign Legion.
How exactly a Yank ends up in command of a Foreign Legion battalion leaves a little to the imagination - or at least prompts the viewer to make the necessary allowances for artistic license. True, the FFL was, and is, open to recruits from just about any country, but most of the officer ranks are usually reserved for the French. Some of the officers do in fact work their way up from the bottom, so maybe this explains Major Foster's leadership position.
In any case, I felt it was one of the better performances of Hackman's career. Though his Major Foster is an officer clearly under a lot of personal stress, with a lot of "ghosts in his closet," Hackman carefully avoids the temptation to imbue this man with excessive amounts of passion that I seem to associate with a Gene Hackman performance. And it works well in this movie, because he is *supposed* to be a man of discipline. In fact one of his more memorable lines in the movie is when he reminds a group of unruly recruits, on their way to joining up with the Legion, that "the Legion is the most disciplined army in the world."
The movie itself is a fairly engrossing mixture of military action and political intrigue - namely, certain powers in France saw fit to use Major Foster's Legion battalion as a sort of "protection squad" to help protect a vital archaeological dig in the Moroccan desert, on lands traditionally inhabited by various Arab tribes. Neither the Arab tribesmen, nor Major Foster himself, are really too keen on the prospect of foreigners coming in to usurp other peoples' wealth. But Major Foster, ever the military man in spite of creeping cynicism, does what he is told, or, as he coldly explains to El Krim, the leader of one of the militant tribes (nicely played, oddly enough, by British actor Ian Holm): "A soldier goes where he is sent."
A very interesting host of characters comes into play throughout the movie, including Max Von Sydow as the archaeologist intent on digging up the treasure in the desert - not only for the glory and coffers of France, but, we can assume, for his own personal aggrandizement.
The Legionnaires themselves are an odd and, at times, colorful lot, much as you'd expect from a disparate group of desperate lads, all seeking anonymity, adventure, escape, redemption, or whatever else it is they expect to find in the Foreign Legion: there is Marco, a slippery jewel thief who seems to con his way in and out of everyone's life, but nevertheless has a heart of gold (though, at times, you wonder if he didn't steal that gold in a heist); there is a tragically inept soldier known only as Top Hat, a former musician whose background and reasons for being in the Legion are never really explained; there is a hard-as-nails battalion officer, a certain Lt. Fontaine, who gives no mercy to the troops, and expects none in return - only discipline. There are assorted other nationalities represented in this odd mix of Legion troops, including a young British lad who meets a particularly unpleasant fate at the hands of the Arabs; a handful of ex-German soldiers, joining up after Germany's defeat in the recently-ended Great War; and also an expatriate Russian, named Ivan, who seems to represent some of the human global spillage caused by the Russian Revolution, just then occurring in his homeland. The Legion seems to be not only the best, but perhaps the only, place for him, and the rest of them, to call home.
Last but not least is beautiful Catherine Deneuve, in a minor role, playing a war-weary French widow, thrown into this Moroccan mix due to circumstances beyond her control. I really liked her appearance in this movie. Though she didn't have a particularly heavy part, I would not call her the obligatory female "fluff" - she did in fact add some balance and nuance to the story that, for me anyway, was really quite meaningful.
The movie ends with an epic battle scene reminiscent of other siege-type movies, where the onslaught of seemingly endless streams of enemy soldiers against a thinly-defended garrison IS the battle royale, the raison d'etre of the entire movie. The battle scene is well-done and ultimately poignant. In fact, the entire movie was well-done and poignant. It just seemed to be lacking those few extra points that snatched it from the jaws of greatness. Be that as it may, it is a great war movie worth seeing by any die-hard war movie fan. And if it prompts you to study further about the history of the French Foreign Legion, as it did me, then, so much the better.