Haunted by memories of the First World War, Major William Sherman Foster (Gene Hackman) now commands a battalion of the French Foreign Legion serving in the Middle East. Among his latest batch of ragtag recruits a charming rogue named Marco (Terence Hill) proves troublesome yet promising. Forced into the legion to avoid a prison sentence, Marco would rather romance Simone Picard (Catherine Deneuve), a beautiful woman embarking on her own personal quest in the desert, than suffer the hardship of a legionnaire’s life. Foster and his men are assigned to safeguard Francois Marneau (Max von Sydow) and his archeological team who are unearthing ancient artefacts, but local militia leader El Krim (Ian Holm) seizes on this outrage to spark a holy war.
March or Die might not be a strict remake of Beau Geste (1939) but is more or less another variation on the oft-filmed Foreign Legion classic, which was itself parodied that same year by Mary Feldman in The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977). That comedic and dramatic takes on the same material were released around the same time could be the reason why so many critics struggled to take the romantic, melancholy tone seriously. Consequently, March or Die did not get the respect it was due. The film was seen as a grandiose folly from photographer turned director Dick Richards, in the wake of his similarly retro-styled triumphs Farewell, My Lovely (1975) and The Culpepper Cattle Company (1972). Of all the filmmakers that rose to prominence in the Seventies, Richards oddly remains the least sung. Possibly because in the wake of this costly epic his career went into a long slump before climaxing in ignominious fashion when he was punched out by an irate Burt Reynolds on the set of Heat (1986), after which he never directed again.
Working with then-regular co-producer Jerry Bruckheimer (long before he honed his trademark bombastic style), Richards crafted an emotionally draining adventure yarn that had a distinctly old-fashioned feel, which is no bad thing. The screenplay, co-written by Richards and another regular collaborator David Zelag Goodman, who previously penned Straw Dogs (1971) and Logan’s Run (1976) (how’s that for contrast?), hits a lot of familiar foreign legion movie notes with characters that are stock types: the callow youth who foolishly enlists for fun, the swarthy brute with a sensitive side, the seemingly amoral rogue hiding a heart of gold. Yet Hackman’s world-weary commander, laden with the psychological scars of a previous war and ongoing conflict in the desert, is pitched at a post-Vietnam audience and would likely resonate with those more immediately familiar with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On close viewing, Marco’s character arc is not too different from that of the lead in a later Jerry Bruckheimer production: Top Gun (1986)! As was the case with that story, hard-earned experience plus the love of a glamorous woman transform a cocky insubordinate into an ideal soldier. The difference here is one of Seventies grit compared with Eighties gloss as Marco suffers greatly at the hands of his hard-bitten superiors. Marco also emerges a more convincing diamond in the rough than Maverick since he is capable of compassion and empathy, at one point risking his life to rescue a straggling soldier in the desert. This was one of two films, along with Mr. Billion (1977), whereby Italian action-comedy icon Terence Hill (real name: Mario Girotti) made his bid for Hollywood stardom. Minus regular sparring partner Bud Spencer who could easily have played one supporting role here, though admittedly his presence might have proved too jarring. Hill gives an affable, athletic performance, probably the best of his career. There are marvellous physical sequences where Marco swings by rope onto the top deck of a ship to court Simone with champagne and stolen pearls or runs across the top of a moving train to sneak into a first class cabin, but Hill also holds his own against Hackman complimenting the latter’s conflicted, embittered officer with an earnest, open-hearted performance. The lovely Catherine Deneuve contributes a spirited turn even though Richards gives her subplot short shrift throughout the action heavy third act.
Filmed on location in the Sahara desert by seasoned cinematographer John Alcott, a favourite of Stanley Kubrick, the action unfolds with an impressive sweep. It proceeds at an undoubtedly measured pace and is at times a little too enamoured with itself but pulls off memorable moments both haunting and eloquent, enhanced by a lush score from Maurice Jarre. Who else would you get to score a lavish desert adventure? Familiar faces abound amongst the largely European cast including Marcel Bozzuffi, reunited with Hackman after The French Connection (1971), Wolf Kahler from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and reoccurring Bond baddie Walter Gotell. Superman (1978) villain Jack O’Halloran also continues his working relationship with Richards after playing the hulking Moose Malloy in Farewell, My Lovely.
Although Ian Holm is miscast as the Arab leader the film still makes some sharp and timely observations about the abuse of religion and culture as a means to unite disparate tribes against the west. It also raises the point of whether it is worth sacrificing lives for the sake of glorified grave-robbers. The extended battle that takes up the entire climax bears favourable comparison with Zulu (1964) though the tone overall is one of romantic fatalism rather than gung-ho heroics, which is very French. Interestingly, the version of the film often screened on television features a different ending to the one found in the theatrical cut which is preserved on the DVD.