The forgotten story of 150 Irish soldiers beset by 3,000 mercenaries in the Congo is equally frustrating and exciting
War might well be hell, but it sure does sizzle the screen. In the history of global conflicts, though, when you’re from a small, neutral country that has never sought to invade another – you can write your emigration hot takes on your own time – you don’t get very many opportunities at showing your brave boys and girls on screen. We’re still somewhat conflicted about the sum of the Somme and Ireland doesn’t have a Vietnam. The closest we even get to a Waterloo is spitefully watching Sweden edge ever close to our Eurovision title. As a culture, we are not warriors. We are not aggressors, we do not lash out, we do not invade, and we do not roll over. We’re fiercely proud peacekeepers. And it’s the forgotten story of some 150 Irish men caught in the middle of flexing superpowers in the Congo in the early 1960s that reminds us that peace is not east to keep.
The Siege of Jadotville tells the true story of a small company of Irish soldiers deployed to a rural outpost in the newly formed African country the Republic of the Congo. In 1961, with the Cold War kicking off, the world’s major military players each want a stake in the rich seam of uranium running through the mineral-rich Katanga province. When Moise Tshombe seizes control of the country, UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjold asks Irish statesman Conor Cruise O’Brien (Mark Strong, terrible Irish accent, even worse wig) to lead the peace talks and asks Irish soldiers to don the blue berets on the ground.
Michael McElhatton and Mark Strong [Netflix/Karen Ballard]
Proud to represent their country on a world stage, the men of A Company are led by Commandant Pat Quinlan (Jamie Dornan), whose lack of practical experience in the field is more than matched by his pragmatism. Squaring off with a French Legionnaire and mercenary in a local pub, Quinlan reads the situation better than every diplomat on either side of the Atlantic, and has the soldiers dig trenches and stock up in the off chance that things take a turn for the worse. Which, when other peacekeepers in Katanga get a little heavy handed, they inevitably do, with the French and Belgian-led mercenaries attacking the isolated Irish outpost and all hell breaking loose, rather aptly during Sunday mass.
It is during the ongoing siege that this Netflix original film comes to life. First-time director Richie Smyth, who cut his teeth on music videos, knows how to stage action very well, allowing the viewer to follow exactly what is happening in a way that still provides thrills and tension. As bullets bursts across the outpost (essentially, a couple of buildings centred around a disused petrol station), the exposed Irish soldiers return fire, shocked and in utter disbelief, but trained well, working cohesively, following good orders, and holding their own. Each successive wave of attack builds on the last, with every new push by an ever growing force of mercenaries comes with the scrappy Irish forces losing shelter and ammo. You grow in frustration with Quinlan when his repeated calls for back up from the other UN forces fall on deaf ears and it’s impossible not to feel a swell of pride at the brilliant sharpshooting of the Irish sniper Bill and the courage of the men under fire.
Less successful is the global politics the film intercuts the siege with. It’s not really clear what is going on in the Congo or the rest of the world, with leaders, despotic and democratic, piling up the house of cards in a rather ham-fisted way – a phone call from Tshombe to Charles De Gaulle is almost laughable in its silliness. Much has already been written about Conor Cruise O’Brien’s role in the Congolese conflict, including his own memoirs, but here he is cast as a reckless statesman who, just like Quinlan in Jadotville, is far out of his depth, but unlike Quinlan, doesn’t seem to care if his compatriots make it out alive. Shifting the focus back and forth from Jadotville to the Katangan capital to New York only serves to pull away from the intimate and truly thrilling siege of the Irish soldiers, and you’ll be just as pissed off as Quinlan and the rest of the boys.
The script, too, is very patchy. Jamie Dornan holds his own in the action sequences, bringing a cool-headed calmness to Quinlan under fire. He also seems to bring the same cool-headed calmness to every other scene, though, still not quite able to carry a scene where he has to do some talking. Still, he gets more to work with than the stilted war-weary lines given to one soldier whose parting words to his father at Baldonnel airfield are about dreaming he will die in Africa. A half hour later, having sipped the napalm-flavoured Kool-Aid and found his inner Kurtz, he tells Quinlan, “I like it, the killin’.”Quinlan reacts cool-headedly.
The Siege of Jadotville, 15A, is released globally on Netflix and receives a limited nationwide release at Irish cinemas on Monday, September 19th.
Verdict: ★★★☆☆ About as far away from a classic as Jadotville is from Dublin, but when the siege kicks off and the voices in the fray are (mostly) authentically Irish, it is impossible not to get pulled into this fascinating story of courage and cunning under fire.