Outnumbered and outgunned, forced into a defensive siege or a last stand against the odds. The Battle of Thermopylae. Battle of Camaron. Rorke’s Drift. The Battle of Long Tan. Black Hawk Down. Every country has a one legendary action of a small force fighting to the death against a much larger one. The modern Irish Army will turn 100 years old in 2022 and its battle of such status should be recognised as the Siege at Jadotville, Congo in September 1961. 86 Irish soldiers have died in the service of the United Nations since 1960 including at the Niemba Ambush in the Congo on the first deployment of Irish UN troops there, in Cyprus, Sinai, Lebanon, Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Eritrea, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Liberia, Chad, and Syria. Make no mistake though their Rorke’s Drift though is Jadotville and Netflix has seen fit to finally make a movie about the siege there which lends itself to film storytelling so easily.
No expense has been spared by the streaming service, location shooting appears to have taken place in Africa and Ireland, a lot of effects are done practically and some work has gone into the computer generated imagery. It’s true in the old days they would have hired out a jet trainer for a film like this but I guess on the budget they had they’ve done everything they can to respect the story of these men and try to do it justice.
A lot of runtime sets up the politics of the region and era; the Congo is mineral rich having gained independence from Belgium and in particular in a breakaway region of Katanga. The United Nations went in to restore peace and stop the country from falling into a client state of the Soviets or the Americans. Diplomats in high offices wanting to make their mark started moving chess pieces, promises were made and phone calls to far lands requested many things. Mark Strong as politician Conor Cruise O’Brien is particularly smarmy and Emmanuelle Seigner is particularly effective as Madame LaFontagne who tells the arriving Commandant Quinlan the UN are not welcome here and Guilaume Canet as French mercenary Rene Faulques who shows him.
As interesting as the political stuff is for causing anger and setting up how the Irish ended up in that field alone and in danger it is not what we’re here for.
The Irish Army had been in existence for a little less than forty years. Career soldiers and officers within in had never seen combat with no wars being fought since the Irish Civil War following the struggle for independence from the British. Irish soldiers who had left and fought for the British in World War II returned in 1945 to be dismissed from the military and disqualified from any state based employment for seven years. The first rotation of Irish troops in the Congo were a blooding for the Army, men from the second rotation prepared not sure of how they would go under fire for the first time from 17 year old privates to the 42 year old Commandant Pat Quinlan.
As the UN put into effect an operation to enforce peace and route anti-government troops and mercenaries from the country, Quinlan’s A Company was dispatched to mining community Jadotville. Commandant Quinlan with a force of 150 took one look around his compound and decided their position was tenuous. He ordered digging in fortifications and requested reinforcements (of which none would ever come). Across the field Rene Faulques who had served in World War II, Indochina and Algiers led a Katangese force of 3,000 to 5,000 prepared to lay siege.
The Siege at Jadotville is a real throwback to old war movies that your Dad loved to watch on a Sunday. Modern production values are there and dry Irish sense of humour bleeds through every now and again but the cast are mostly types not people, the soldier with glasses, the sniper (Sam Keeley as Billy Ready), the gruff old Sergeant (Jason O’Mara as Company Sergeant Jack Prendergast). Their emotive faces tell enough and Jamie Dornan acquits himself well as Commandant Pat Quinlan who as a person gets the most rounded out beside the exasperating political figures.
Here were Irish troops far from home with no national interests in the Katangese natural resources defending their turf against insurmountable odds. Asked at one point why he is there, the officer replies I’m a soldier and I follow orders. Dornan conveys well Quinlan’s courage in the field, need for decisive action and simmering rage down the radio to bureaucrats far from the danger telling him to settle down while he is under siege. The old Irish humour shines through in one request via radio “We could do with some whiskey.” Every soldier at Jadotville says Quinlan was the difference between them living and dying over the six day siege. Historical reports put forward that the effective fire from the Irish caused the numerically superior Katangese force to almost route.
How much of the battle in the film is historically accurate? We know a helicopter did get through once with water supplies that were contaminated, we know the enemy used a Fouga Magister trainer jet fitted with bombs and machine guns and carried out air attacks. We know reinforcements were stopped at Lufira Bridge. Beyond historical accuracy the film revels in finding new ways to repel waves and makes the action well orientated and easy to digest to a lay person. It’s rip roaring fun, may not get across the confusion and desperation of such a bloody protracted action but it conveys well the heat of the region, the fear and bravery of the men and again and again supplies well staged spectacle. There is also one stunning statistic of the battle which I will not spoil here until you see the film.
The Siege at Jadotville was an extraordinary feat of arms by a smaller force against a larger one and that they’ve only recently been receiving the credit they deserve. In 2016 the Irish government awarded a Presidential Unit Citation to A Company, too late for some to receive it but certainly a worthy recognition finally for their actions. Better war films have been made but no braver men have existed, if this helps to get them more recognition then that’s a start and in the meantime watch this with your Dad, I think you’ll both enjoy it.