A young and sexy Yves Montand and the ever beautiful María Félix in Les Héros sont fatigués/ Heroes and Sinners (see below). As you can see from the posters above, the filmmakers hoped the sex would sell the film’s more complicated themes of de-colonisation in Africa, German unification, European conciliation, and what happens to men after the struggles they sacrificed their lives to are ended. A melodrama/adventure film/ political statement that does not quite fully work but that is so fascinating I plan to watch it again. María Felix is introduced being pushed around by her partner, a former collaborator and anti-semite, for sleeping with black men. Curd Jürgens won the best actor prize for his performance at the Venice Film Festival that year for this film. Gert Fröbe is at least as good as a concentration camp survivor.
Frantz Fanon would publish Black Skins, White Masks in 1952; Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man also came out in ’52; Aimé Césaire Discours sur le colonialism in ’55; Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in ’58. This film is made amidst ideas on race and colonialism that were live in that period, by filmmakers who were actively engaged, who contributed to the development and dissemination of political and aesthetic ideas, from the left, in the public sphere of post-war France.
Director Yves Ciampi had made a famous film on the Liberation of Paris, Les compagnons de la gloire — La division Leclerc dans la bataille, headed the Film Technicians Trade Union, and would go on to marry Japanese actress Keiko Kishi. One of the writers, Jacques-Laurent Bost, might be more famous to cinéastes today as the brother of Pierre Bost, the screnwriter François Truffaut singled out for his ire in ‘Une certain tendance du cinéma Francais’. But those more familiar with French culture would know him as the war correspondent hired by Albert Camus to cover the fall of Berlin. He was at the liberation of Dachau and was one of the first people to write about the Holocaust. He was also, along with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, a founding member of Le nouvel observateur, a key member of that particular group of existentialists and the lover of Simone de Beauvoir. Montand was for most of his life a life-long leftist, closely associated with the communist party, and his brother Julien Livi was a member of the Communist party, one of the leading post-war Trade Unionists and Genera Secretary to the ‘Fédération du Commerce, des Services de de la Distribtuion (CGT) de l’alimentation’ from 1956 to 1979. Even María Félix, who seemed to skate elegantly over politics and had seemingly had no qualms about working in Fascist Spain or Peron’s Argentina just a few years earlier, was then involved with Jean Cau, Sartre’s former secretary and a writer who’d published Maria-Nêgre, a novel about the tragic love affair between a black GI and an Italian girl set during the libertion of Naples and published in 48.
The filmmakers lean left, most of them with personal experience of racism, and perhaps because of that the film engages with and dramatises issues of racial relations in a post-colonial setting with a seriousness and relative depth that is rare in cinema, particularly the cinema of that period. As the title card that precedes the film (above) tells us: ‘This film is set in in one of the black republics of Africa. In these republics, young and independent, a black elite educated abroad has introduced a language and way of life far removed from African morays. In spite of that, these countries have preserved most of their ancestral traditions.’
Les heros sont fatigués is ostensibly an adventure story about a former flier now stuck piloting merchandise across Africa, who gets his hands on a shipment of diamonds, and decides that selling them for himself might be his ticket back home. But the colonial structures and relationships of this former British colony keep getting in the way. In the first few minutes of the film, Michel Riviére (Montand) hitches a ride to Free City, the capital, stops off at the house of the only contact he has and this is what we’re shown (see clip below): the camera follows him into the house, what we hear is American blues, one of the young women working is topless, the young child is naked, there’s a rooster on top of the fridge. It all looks ‘pittoresque,’ othered, overly atmospheric, and arguably racist in the way it fails to distinguish between black American and African cultures. But then, listen to the head of the household’s speech. ‘He was nothing more than a thief…We have no need of your kind here. Our country is young and we are free. Can’t you understand?’ Visually and aurally the film gives mixed signals. But there’s no misinterpreting the speech, one that frames the rest of the film just as powerfully as the text before the film’s beginning excerpted above.
María Félix gets a great introduction — her transgression here is that she has a black lover, Sidney (Gordon Heath), and without hiding it from her partner either. But the scene illustrates why in order to understand the power and force of María Félix’s stardom, one has to see her in her Mexican films. There she’s presented as a force of nature, a beauty both indigenous and rare with a touch of the divine and more than soupçon of devilry. She’s ‘Woman’ in all her many guises and everything happens around her. Here, she’s the illustration of a theme.
As you can see in the clip below, we see her through Montand’s look. He goes to the door, moves towards the window and spies on François (Jean Severin) screaming at Manuella ‘You’re white. You belong to us’. ‘Shut up stupid’. The fight continues in voice-over but the camera follows Montand as he now goes into the bar and asks if they have a room. ‘If she lets herself be touched by her Negro, I’ll shoot her and him with her.’ Then note how everyone’s gaze turns to Montand, François moves to occupy the space between Manuela and Michel. And then in the next shot, she moves in between the two men, foreshadowing what is inevitable, ie, the two stars of the film start a love affair, as François says, ‘She’s sleeping with black men. Can you imagine? Her!’ And then another character, who we will learn is a Republican ex-combattant from the Spanish Civil War, intervenes and says of François. ‘He’s got a good stomach. In France he ate jews; here it’s Blacks’, thus linking them together in the film’s thematisation of race. I wanted to draw attention to this because it’s Félix’s introduction; and in many ways it’s very powerful. But the focus is almost entirely on Montand or on the question of miscegenation and racism. She barely gets a word or a look in.
The themes of colonisation in its changing forms is shown in different ways. At the very beginning as Michel enters free city, we see a big billboard advertising Coca Cola (see frame grab, below left). Later on when Sidney (Gordon Heath) enters the bar to propose marriage to Manuella and François reaches for the gun, its symbolically shown to us as surrounded by American dollars (see frame grab, below left). One empire has left but another is taking over with a different form of colonisation but just as murderous. One of the characters says ‘there’s only two white women here and they’re both colonised by blacks.’ But that’s missing the point, which is that one master is giving way to another, and that Coca Cola can serve one empire just as military presence did a previous model.
Like in Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear — Montand’s first big hit in the movies — much of the narrative here revolves around a bar in which series of outcasts stuck in a third-world country pass the time and scheme on how to get out. But Les héros sont fatiguées is more overtly political: François Severin (Jean Servais) is the collaborationist judge who helped send Jews to the gas chambers; Hermann (Gert Fröbe) is a former German politician sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis for his politics, now stuck repairing watches in Africa; there’s also more than a hint that Pépé (Manolo Montez) fought on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War (see the posters around his bed, bottom left); and of course Wolf Gerke (Curd Jürgens) Michel’s equal and opposite, is revealed to be a former Luftwaffe flyer (see the image of the lighter, below right), who fought on the opposite side.
The film offers a conciliation between Hermann and Wolf, they both dream of German re-unification. And the last image in the film will be that of Wolf and Michel supporting each other as they make their way out of the country and into a new life as partners (see below).
I was very intrigued by the scene below, as structurally and thematically complex one. In the scenes at the bar Michel and Wolf have a deal going but Michel is hoping to double-cross him by escaping on a boat. Wolf and Hermann, previously poles apart in politics, use Christmas as an occasion in which to offer a toast for peace and for German unification. It’s also where Manuella has to tell Michel that François has sabotaged their escape plans and hopes to find another solution by visiting Sidney, her black lover and a powerful person in the country’s new order. It’s a bit after this that Michel and Wolf will realise their commonality in spite of having fought against each other in the war and bond.
The scene cross-cuts between the bar inside, the populace at large celebrating in their own indigenous customs; and the Europeanised hoi polloi adopting foreign customs in dress and dancing. It’s the last bit, where Manuella goes into the haute-bourgeois black party that intrigues me, partly because it must have been so rare to see in the cinema in 1955. Here the tables are turned. Manuella, who started off life as a Consul’s daughter, is here looked upon as the outsider, slightly trashy, out of place and possibly not knowing her place. It’s where Sidney throws Manuella physically out of the party and Villeterre (Gérard Oury), the fixer who’s arranged to buy Michel’s diamonds at a fixed price, tells Sidney, ‘Come on, come on my friend. Make a gesture. Be jealous, by all means. But don’t be racist.’ How are we meant to look at this scene? Are we meant to be with Sidney and the black bourgeoisie?; are we meant to look down on them?; are we meant to think they’re gotten too big for their britches, have forgotten to be African and badly imitating a culture that doesn’t suit them? I’m not sure. Yves Ciampi is not a good enough director to be both clear and complex in his filming of the scene. But for me this is the scene the film is worth seeing for.
There are other attractions of course, Maria Felix exhibiting a degree of flesh that must have been shocking then. She’s constrained by being limited to only one outfit but she does what she can for her fans by making her hair do the work expected of stars (see below right). Montand is very sexy also. Curd Jürgens and Gert Fröbe are excellent. The score, featuring some of the biggest hits of the era (Edith Piaf et) is a delight. The fim’s aims and its politics are admirable. But it’s well filmed without being exciting (The Wages of Fear is a useful contrast here as well). It’s also a bit muddled in that it loses the action/adventure strand of the film in its attempt to include the politics and the picturesque. And yet, without being great, it’s interested me enough to write 2,000 words on it.