The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Desert Sands

Ah, the French Foreign Legion, where men can be men and no one can judge them for it. Yes, I'm rewriting my western posse lead so deal with it. Originally created in 1831, the Legion is a unit in the French armed forces that allows for foreign nationals to join the Legion, not an exclusively French group of soldiers. This very unique, very interesting military force has provided a long list of films to tell their story. Check out the list HERE. The most famous is Beau Geste, but there are many, many more, including 1955's Desert Sands.

At an isolated outpost in northern Africa, Fort Valeau, the French Foreign Legion garrison is readying for relief, for a break from its year-long posting. The commanding officer (an uncredited Ben Wright) is set to be replaced as well, medical concerns beginning to weigh on him. His replacement? A legend among the Legion, Capt. David Malcolm (Ralph Meeker), an American who has gained quite a reputation over the years as an impressive, more than capable fighting man. Malcolm arrives at the outpost ahead of his relief company (by helicopter too, oooh!), surprised they haven't arrived yet. Malcolm and the garrison soon find out why. A young shiekh, El Zanal (Keith Larsen), has been lying in wait for 15 years, building and planning and preparing for an all-out assault that will wipe out the Legion, starting with Fort Valeau. Malcolm's relief company has been massacred, and the garrison is very much on its own with no help in sight.

There is a certain charm to French Foreign Legion movies that have always appealed to me. The portrayal of these fighting men is usually of misfits and screw-ups looking for a chance to redeem themselves through battle, sometimes through their own death. It's magnified for movies obviously, the Legion a legitimate fighting unit in the French military. But as movies would have it, it seems garrison after garrison of Legionnaires are wiped out by warring tribesmen across Africa and around the world. This short, 87-minute B-movie from director Lesley Selander certainly has its moments. The isolated outpost is a very cool set, and while there isn't a ton of star power, there's some fun characters on-hand. 'Sands' is content to be fun and entertaining, but some script issues really prevent it from being a good movie.

The positives are pretty obvious for me. Isolated outpost, impossible odds, eccentric group of legionnaires forced to fight together, putting aside their differences and rivalries. Fun, right? Meeker is okay as Capt. Malcolm, a little wooden for a guy known for his dark roles. I would have liked a little more background about his legendary status as a Legionnaire as well. His garrison is full of some cool characters that lack star power, but that's a minor concern when you're having fun. They include Sgt. Diepel (J. Carroll Naish), the longtime fighter and tough as nails sarge, Pvt. Tyle (John Smith), the fiery Texan, Havers (Ron Randell), the hard-drinking Brit, Lt. Mackie (Jarl Victor), second-in-command, Gabin (Otto Waldis), the likable vet, Lucia (Peter Mamakos), the amiable Italian, Ducco (Albert Carrier), the cowardly Frenchman, Woloack (Mort Mills), the radioman, Sandy (Philip Tonge), the friendly Scotsman, and Kleiner (Peter Norman), the outpost's doctor. A fun, cool group of disparate characters.

One would think that with an 87-minute movie, there isn't a whole lot of time available to really screw things up. One would be wrong. This movie was good, really entertaining, good action, for the first 45 minutes. Then it wasn't good. Larsen could be the most wooden actor ever, his epic, diabolical plans for revenge coming across as a pretty weak plan....that took 15 years to plan. Meh, what's time anyways? That's one thing though, not a deal-breaker. How about Zanal's sister, Zara (Marla English), also seeking revenge? Well, kind of. Mostly, she instantly falls in love with the not so charismatic Capt. Malcolm. She's like putty in his hand when she finds out his wife and child were killed in a car accident. The ladies do like a tortured bad boy, don't they? A story about a last stand, about honor and loyalty and camaraderie in the Legion? Money in the bank. But no. Let's make it a love story. Sound thinking if you ask me.

Now getting to the 45-minute mark is pretty fun. Good tension, good mystery as we meet the garrison's men, start to question what exactly is going on just out of view over the horizon. Zanal's attack on the fort is a gem, well-choreographed and surprisingly dark for a 1955 flick. For a B-movie in general, it's a pretty solid action sequence. That's ruined in the finale as the Legionnaires fight off a second massacre, defeating the evil invaders with awful strategy. Surrounded on all sides by expert marksmen from positions of height, the Legionnaires stand in the open in square formation, shooting back....and winning!!! It's such a stupidly put together finale, wrapping things up far too quickly. A disappointing end result, mostly because it was pretty decent early on. Also look for John Carradine as Jala, a treacherous, conniving wine merchant. Oh, an evil wine merchant!

Desert Sands (1955): **/****

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