Film eye: The siege of Jadotville

Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

Netflix, directed by Rickie Smyth

By Lar Joye

Above: Commandant Pat Quinlan (Jamie Dornan) calling, in vain, for UN reinforcements. (Netflix)

Above: The real Commandant Pat Quinlan (left) in Jadotville, September 1961.

Above: This is very much an action film, detailing frontal attacks by gendarmerie, artillery and mortar. (Netflix)

Above: Guillaume Canet as René Faulques, commander of the attacking Belgian and French mercenaries. (Netflix)

The siege of Jadotville tells the story of what happened to 155 soldiers from the Irish Army’s A company of the 35th Battalion who found themselves in the unenviable position of being in a remote mining town far from reinforcements and surrounded by a population who did not support the United Nations in the Congo in 1961. There are many examples of sieges in colonial wars in which Irish soldiers played a part—the Alamo (1836), Little Big Horn (1876) and Rorke’s Drift (1879) come to mind. All these stories have been made into fairly inaccurate films, but The siege of Jadotville tells a generally accurate story of the inexperienced Irish Army suddenly finding itself in someone else’s civil war in the 1960s and the problems they faced during the battle.

In July 1960 the Irish Army made its first major commitment to a United Nations peace-keeping mission, contributing two battalions (the 32nd and 34th) to a UN force whose goal was to bring stability to the newly independent Congo. Over a four-year period, 6,191 Irish soldiers volunteered to serve in the Congo but at a high price: 26 Irish soldiers were killed, nine in the Niemba ambush of November 1960 alone. The mission evolved from peace-keeping to ‘peace enforcement’, involving more aggressive (and dangerous) actions to expel foreign mercenaries and prevent civil war. It was in this context that the Irish at Jadotville found themselves far from HQ while UN officials played at being soldiers, in this case focused on the role of Conor Cruise O’Brien, then working for the United Nations. The next two battalions, the 35th and 36th, were to find themselves in almost constant battle in 1961.

Ten years ago there were a series of books about the siege—David O’Donoghue’s The Irish Army in the Congo, 1960–64: the far battalions (reviewed in HI 14.4, July/August 2006), Rose Doyle’s Heroes of Jadotville: the soldiers’ story and Declan Powers’s Siege at Jadotville: the Irish Army’s forgotten battle—and there were many attempts in the 1990s to turn the story into a film. In the end, the California-based company Netflix has produced the film based on Declan Powers’s book. It is directed by newcomer Rickie Smyth and follows the book in detailing how the troops fought bravely against 3,000 gendarmerie, battled-hardened French and Belgian mercenaries and colonists, but were let down by the leaders of the United Nations and were never fully accepted back home in Ireland by their army colleagues. Indeed, the battle that A Company fought was only officially acknowledged in 2005 with the unveiling of a commemorative plaque in Athlone, where many of them came from, and this year with a unit citation. Most of the focus of the film is on the role of Commandant Pat Quinlan, played by Jamie Dornan. Quinlan realised that he needed to prepare for a fight and had his soldiers dig trenches in preparation for an attack, thereby saving the lives of his men. This is very much an action film, detailing frontal attacks by gendarmerie, artillery and mortar attacks, and finally a Fouga aircraft strafing the Irish positions, destroying most of their vehicles. It is estimated that 250 gendarmerie and 30 mercenaries were killed; five Irish soldiers were wounded but, amazingly, none of them were killed. Quinlan was forced to surrender after the four-day battle and they were held as prisoners for a number of weeks.

Historical accuracy is often not adhered to in films, which can cause great upset to participants, historians, anonymous social media commentators and the growing corps of newspaper opinion-writers. Twenty years ago Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins caused a storm of angry accusations about historical accuracy. Having worked on that film as a young extra, I have always been happy that many scenes I was in did not make the final cut—if they had, there would have been even more angry letters and articles. If there is a criticism of The siege at Jadotville it is that there are historical mistakes in the finer details: uniforms are not the right colour, insignia are incorrect and only FN rifles are seen, rather than the First-World-War-era Lee Enfield rifles actually used in the battle. There is no sign of the Irish-made Ford armoured car (see Artefacts, HI 18.6, Nov./Dec. 2010). These played an essential role in the battle and fired more than 15,000 rounds of ammunition, helping to protect and defend the Irish soldiers.

These issues should not detract from the film, which is well produced and holds the attention of the viewer throughout. For those who want to know more about the history of the battle, Declan Powers’s book has been republished. It is a credit to the director, actors and crew that they have brought a long-forgotten story to the screen, the Irish Army’s first battle since independence, while explaining the complicated back-story. Encourage your extended Irish family around the world to see this film on Netflix, preferably on a big TV, and acknowledge a group of very brave men who fought in a fierce battle 55 years ago. There are more stories from Ireland’s twentieth-century history that could be turned into movies, and hopefully Netflix will commission more Irish-themed films.

Lar Joye is curator of military history at the National Museum of Ireland (Decorative Arts and History).

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