Review: ‘The Champagne Safari’

Produced, directed by George Ungar, Screenplay, Steve Lucas, John Kramer, Harold Crooks. Narrator: Colm Feore.

Produced, directed by George Ungar, Screenplay, Steve Lucas, John Kramer, Harold Crooks. Narrator: Colm Feore.

“The Champagne Safari” is a fascinating feature-length documentary about the controversial French-born entrepreneur and Nazi collaborator Charles Bedaux, the inventor of industrial efficiency programs who was critically lampooned in Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times.” Bedaux is not a house-hold name, but his life story is inextricably tied to many of the major events of the first half of this century, most notably the rise of the Nazi regime in Europe, Biopic’s look at his disturbing role in this era remains riveting from start to finish.

The film, which is set to be screened at National Film Board theaters across Canada, could elicit some interest for specialized theatrical screenings internationally, and the fast-paced docu is a natural for TV buyers interested in quality, though-provoking programming.

First-time feature director George Ungar, a Canadian animator and illustrator , spent 16 years making this ambitious film. He was initially drawn to the project after reading an article about Bedaux’s bizarre, illfated expedition through the wilderness of the Canadian north in 1934. Bedaux made the 1,200 -mile trek through northern Alberta and British Columbia with five nickel-plated , half-track Citroen vehicles 130 pack horses, loads of gourmet. Gallic food, kegs of the finest French champagne, thousands of pounds of books and a support crew that included cameraman Floyd Crosby, who had won an Oscar three years before for “Tabu.”

Crosby’s footage, lost for decades, was discovered by Ungar in a Paris basement in 1984, and the strange, black-and-white images of this almost surreal trip are used to great effect throughout the film. Ungar builds his story around these haunting shots, which he employs as a visual metaphor for the rampant megalomania that defined Bedaux’s life story.

Narrated by actor Colm Feore and with David Hemblen providing the voice of Bedaux, pie features newsreel footage, vintage photos, original location shooting and presnt-day interviews with authors, historians and relatives of Bedaux. Curious tale raises all sorts of questions about the ambivalent attitude of American industrialists toward fascist Europe prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Bedaux became rich by taking the then-new ideas about scientific management and applying them directly to large-scale workplaces in the U.S. and he built his empire on his ability to sell major U.S. corporations on “the Bedaux system, ” a method of extracting more productivity from workers. As his wealth grew, Bedaux became something of a millionaire amateur explorer, and his famed “champagne safari” in 1934 was simply the most extravagant of his exotic jaunts.

A couple of years after the Canadian trip, which ws never completed, Bedaux hosted the wedding of the abdicated King Edward VIII and Mrs. Wallis Simpson at his ostentatious estate, the Chateau de Cande, in France’s Loire Valley. Bedaux’s political problems began to develop soon thereafter, when he arranged for the former British monarch to tour Nazi Germany, a scheme devised by Bedaux to win favor for him with high-level German authorities. In the face of protests over his Nazi ties and his unpopular labor-control methods, Bedaux was forced to resign as the head of his U.S. company, and he underwent a full-scale nervous breakdown in the late ’30s.

But the ever-opportunistic Bedaux ended up in France just as the Germans rolled into Paris in 1940, and he immediately started doing business with the Nazi occupiers. In 1942, he began work on a trans-Sahara railway project in collaboration with the Nazis, but he was arrested by U.S. military in Algeria. He was eventually transferred to a detention center in Miami and was set to be tried for treason when he overdosed on sleeping pills.

The most memorable material here is Crosby’s footage of northern Canada, including a stunning staged sequence in which Bedaux has the expensive Citroen tank cars driven off a high cliff and smashed into pieces far below.

The dense script packs in a barrage of facts, demanding alert attention from the viewer. But almost all the biographical and historical info is intriguing, and Ungar moves the story along at a brisk, but not confusing, pace. Narration by Feore is fine, though Hemblen’s take on Bedaux’s voice is a little too dramatic.

The quality of images varies radically, from crackly old black-and-white newsreels to contempo color lensing.

Pie recounts a strange, hard-to-believe tale, and the lack of public awareness of this minor figure in 20th century history will make it more difficult to market. But the irresistible force of the story will hook most viewers who sit down with it.

The Champagne Safari

(CANADIAN -- DOCU)

Production

A National Film Board of Canada release (in Canada) of a Field Seven Films production, with the participation of Telefilm Canada, Ontario Film Development Corp., National Film Board of Canada, Canada Council, Ontario Arts Council, CND Cultural Property Export Review Board and Canadian Studies Directorate. (International sales: Field Seven Films, Toronto.) Executive producer, John Walker.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W), Kirk Tougas, Douglas Kiefer, Ray Dumas, Susan Gourley, Floyd Crosby; editor, John Kramer; music, Normand Roger, Denis Chartrand; sound, Andre Chaput; associate producers, Gordon Martin, Harold Crooks. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 10, 1995. (Also in Vancouver Film Festival.) Running time: 100 MIN.
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