Monday 19 March 2018

Jamie & the unknown Irish soldier

In a career move that's fifty shades from Christian Grey, Jamie Dornan brings to life the story of Irish UN peacekeeper Pat Quinlan, who led a shootout against Congolese soldiers after being ambushed

Real life: Irish actors Conor MacNeill and Jamie Dornan star in 'The Siege of Jadotville' for Netflix
Real life: Irish actors Conor MacNeill and Jamie Dornan star in 'The Siege of Jadotville' for Netflix
Ed Power

Ed Power

The trailer for the forthcoming Netflix movie 'The Siege of Jadotville' is a masterclass in old-fashioned Hollywood shock and awe. Machine guns roar, soldiers weave between explosions, a helicopter and fighter jet tangle in mid-air combat. You expect Bruce Willis and/or Arnold Schwarzenegger to turn up halfway through, pithy one-liners locked and loaded.

The slick and stylish promo has certainly had the desired impact, with nearly a quarter of a million views online thus far. Yet far from another Tinseltown destruction derby, 'Jadotville' sets out to tell a complicated story and one of particular interest to Irish audiences.

The movie recounts the true life tale of UN peacekeepers from this country ambushed by mercenaries during the Congo's brutal civil war 55 years ago, and how they fought off 5,000 guerrillas before running out of supplies.

A relatively obscure nugget of military history, generally forgotten in Ireland and unheard of anywhere else, may appear an unlikely recipe for success. Yet Netflix, masters of making people care about shows they initially know very little about, has somehow turned 'Jadotville', which debuts on Netflix on October 7, into a very big deal, one that has grabbed the imaginations of many of its 80 million subscribers around the world.

Given the particulars of the story, 'Jadotville' was always going to be a draw in Ireland. Yet when the promo reel was released last week, it made headlines internationally. Without question that was in large part due to the the casting of 'Fifty Shades of Grey' actor Jamie Dornan as Commandant Pat Quinlan, who led the 157 Irish troops in their shootout against the Congolese, and the Belgian and French mercenaries assisting them.

Dornan has always seemed quietly embarrassed by 'Fifty Shades' (the second sequel to which, 'Fifty Shades Darker', is released in February). Nonetheless, the S&M sauce-fest has won him a global fanbase - more than enough to draw the spotlight to a theoretically minority-interest movie about Irish soldiers caught up a post-colonial power grab.

However, 'Jadotville' also benefits from the decision to make an arresting film rather than 100pc accurate docudrama. The scene at the end of the trailer in which thousands of mercenaries surround the Irish compound, for instance, is largely an invention, with most of the real fighting consisting of ambushes and skirmishes. 'Jadotville' looks like a thrilling romp because that is what it wants to be.

"How to you take this historical stuff and make a piece of cinema out of it?," pondered director Richie Smyth after introducing the film at this summer's Galway Film Fleadh. "It's not a documentary… I spoke to a lot of soldiers, a lot of historians. Everyone has a different story. You start to find a path through it.

"To engage that audience you take certain aspects - the original battle was more skirmishes. To help the audiences understand we brought it all to one place. That's the cinema aspect of it. I would like to think we kept to the historic truth."

As for Dornan… it has unquestionably added to his likeability that, though he has spent his entire professional life in the UK, he is a very Irish kind of movie star. In his public appearances, he comes across as humble, self-deprecating, at pains to play down his success and his status as an object of lust (he is married with two young daughters).

He has also, counter-intuitively, built a career from playing cold, unpleasant men - first as a charming serial killer in 'The Fall', then as the whips and chains-happy romantic interest in 'Fifty Shades'. Thus 'Jadotville' offers his many fans a rare opportunity to see him as the straightforward good guy (as a bonus they get to hear him wrestling with Quinlan's Kerry accent).

"I'm delighted. They probably landed on the ideal guy," said Declan Power, author of the book on which 'The Siege of Jadotville' is based. "One thing that struck me is that he [Dornan] doesn't look unlike Quinlan when he has facial hair. There is about 10 years between them."

In addition to confirming Dornan's star power, the excitement around 'Jadotville' speaks to the enormous reach and influence of Netflix. While the movie is to have a limited cinematic release in Ireland and the UK from Monday, internationally it will premiere on the streaming service on October 7 - the most high-profile feature to do so since last year's 'Beasts Of No Nation', from 'True Detective' director Cary Fukunaga.

Though Netflix usually declines to release audience figures and ratings, it is believed that over three million people saw 'Beasts' within the first two weeks. And that was a dark drama about child soldiers - lacking 'Jadotville''s gung-ho set-pieces or Dornan's star wattage.

"I think [it's] a bigger audience than any specialty film could ever hope for in its first two weeks of release, and maybe for its entire run. And we're just starting," Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said at the time.

"This was No 1 in really diverse countries - Japan, Brazil, Mexico - places where these [kinds of] films typically never open. It's been incredibly gratifying to see these audiences respond to this film."

If 'Jadotville' receives anything like the same reception, it will give the movie a previously unthinkable platform. For Dornan, director Smyth and everyone else involved, it promises to be an explosive several weeks ahead.

The true story of Jadotville

Congo won its independence from Belgium in 1960 and quickly descended into blood internecine conflict as local warlords vied for supremacy.

By 1961, it was decided to dispatch UN peacekeepers to the country, which is how a company of 157 Irish troops came to be garrisoned at a remote base in the mining town of Jadotville, 100 kilometres distant from the main UN operations in the region.

En route to the province of Katanga, the company had been told they would protect locals from guerrilla fighters. On arrival, they discovered the population was, in fact, overwhelmingly sympathetic to the insurgents.

The rebels, backed by mercenaries from France and Belgium, struck one morning in September, while the majority of the troops were at mass. There were an estimated 5,000 attackers, with support from a fighter jet armed with bombs and machine guns.

The Irish troops in contrast had outmoded equipment, including water-cooled Vickers machine guns dating from the First World War. The fighting raged for six days, with UN reinforcements repelled by the Congolese.

No Irish soldiers died in the fighting, while the number of Katangese injured or killed is estimated at several thousand (with others fleeing as it became clear this would be no easy victory).

Abandoned by his superiors and having run out of basic supplies — including water — in the end Quinlan accepted a ceasefire and the men were held hostage for a month.

Returning to Ireland, Quinlan recommended many of his troops for Military Medal for Gallantry, the Irish equivalent of a Purple Heart. Far from being greeted as heroes, however, they were widely shunned. Surrender was perceived as a humiliation and stain on the national reputation.

Quinlan was himself seen as a figure of shame within the military brass and his gallantry was not acknowledged until a government review of Jadotville in 2004 — seven years after the commander’s death.

– Ed Power

Irish Independent

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