Mathieu Vadepied’s new film “Tirailleurs” (“Father and Soldier”), premiering May 19 at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, takes an invigorating look at the forced conscription and exploitation of soldiers in colonial Africa during the World War I, a gruesome aspect of warfare that has often gone unnoticed in popular war cinema. As it weaves together two central storylines – the efforts of a Senegalese conscript to escape the bloody front with his son and return to their village, and the impetuous efforts of their French commander to retake a hill from German control – the film pervades a new skepticism in the war-thriller genre, challenging the glorification of wartime sacrifice. Although the film at times seems to succumb to the exploitative pretext it aims to challenge—that the urgency of war compelled colonial subjects to put aside their objections to French rule and help—as a complete work , it is an important addition to the canon of World War I World Cinema, highlighting the abuse and devastation inflicted on colonized African nations in the name of the European war effort.
The film follows Bakary Diallo (Omar Sy, in a heartbreaking performance), a Senegalese shepherd who volunteers to join the French auxiliary unit of African soldiers – known as “tirailleurs” – after the French authorities raided his village and abducted his son Thierno (Allisane Diong) as a conscript. What unfolds is a sprawling epic that spans their journey through Europe and through war, tracing their differing attitudes towards the conflict. Bakary’s resolve to pull his son out of the war deepens even as their surroundings darken into a living nightmare, while Thierno meets a young and grandiose French lieutenant Chambreau (Jonas Bloquet) and grows increasingly convinced of the importance of their fight on the front. as he resigns himself to life in the army. Through their stories, Vadepied follows two distinct perspectives on war, one driven by family allegiance and the other by military duty.
The latter of these motivations, as embodied by Theirno, feels familiar as the standard narrative perspective of most war movies. Thierno’s arc focuses on his growing investment in the fight against the Central Powers, where he believes he can make an impact, unite with his brothers in the military, and help the cause of war. His beliefs reflect the attitude and environment of tormented heroism that tends to pervade military thrillers. The extended combat sequences on the front mirror those films in their suspense-building tactics, which emphasize that each character’s ultimate goal is to achieve their military goals (and survive, if they can). Sy’s character, on the other hand, introduces a third perspective that exists outside of military reckoning. Instead of the abstract French preoccupation with protecting the fatherland, he is guided by his parental protection over his son; Thierno’s safe return to Senegal is the only priority, and if he can save his son by deserting the front, he will.
Vadepied extensively depicts the development of both characters but focuses more on Sy’s perspective, knocking tragic military heroism from its prized place at the top of the hierarchy of war movie motivations. Bakary’s objective appears to be much more immediate, important and intuitive than the military triumph for which Chambreau and later Thierno are ready to risk everything, and his appears to be the only point of view – in relation to the Allied and central authorities – unaffected by delusions of military victory. and genuinely concerned with the life and survival of the skirmishers.
As Thierno becomes increasingly drawn into the French military effort and puts himself in ever greater danger, his father’s increasingly frantic efforts to restrain him appear to be the only option to save his life in the face of the vortex of apathetic violence of war. Beyond the principled element, Sy and Diong’s performances and the deep emotional realism of their arc lends heart to the story and consistently reinforces its deadly stakes, delivering a captivating and touching visual experience.
Using these techniques, Vadepied’s war film—which often resembles a standard war drama in other respects, such as its battle sequences and camp scenes—challenges the moral legitimacy of the conscription tactics. French army and wonders why Senegalese soldiers are forced to give their lives. serving an empire that doesn’t treat them like humans. Vadepied makes a meaningful comment on French abuses of colonial subjects in the name of the war effort, illustrating how nationalist ideals so often parroted in war films are weaponized against marginalized people in times of war.
That being said, “Father and Soldier” certainly has its issues. Once Bakary and Thierno arrive in France, the French authorities are rarely shown and the film mainly shows Thierno’s budding friendship with Chambreau, who constantly repeats that their different ranks should not affect their friendship. The question of how their different racial and political statuses within the French empire inform their dynamics (Chambrea being the white son of a commander and Thierno being a black kidnapped from an area colonized by France) is never thoughtfully approached. Although Bakary implicitly presents the idea that the conscripts are fighting for a power that will not recognize them and respect their freedoms, Vadepied does not carry this idea until the third act and never substantially deepens the French institutional attitude. towards the skirmishers once they arrived. in the theater of war.
History shows that Tirailleurs were again drafted and exploited during World War II, after which they were sidelined and denied equal pensions by the French military, but this important piece of background – confirming the Bakary’s argument – does not appear in the film. When Vadepied moves from the end of World War I to the present day, where the film deals with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and its connection to the slain skirmishers who were left where they fell, he skips that context. As a result, his depiction of the French institutional attitude towards the skirmishers in Europe – in essence, what Bakary faced – does not seem fully sketched. Sometimes it seems unethical to exploit the traumatic experience of skirmishers in cinematic suspense warfare, such as in the fast-paced sequences of No Man’s Land, without providing a full historical picture of their experience and lack of continual recognition, effectively glossing over their treatment after the war.
Ultimately, “Father and Soldier” takes on the form of a classic war movie. The film’s cinematic atmosphere is marked by an immersive production design showing the war-ravaged villages of France, a series of fast-paced front-line action sequences, and the explosive momentum of a battlefield film. But there’s value in itself to telling this classic war story with a focus on the skirmishers and the unique dangers and prejudices they faced. Indeed, the cinematic record of the war is only complete if it gives voice to their mistreatment, and Vadepied’s film is an important, if flawed, addition to the canon.