The Madness of War

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An entry in Movies Silently’s super-blogathon, the Snoopathon. Subject: ESPIONAGE!

There’s an eye-opening bit in Sam Fuller’s epic war memoir, THE BIG RED ONE, where Lee Marvin’s soldiers raid a Nazi base in a Belgian insane asylum. Amid the skirmish, dazed inmates carry on eating, oblivious to the firestorm around them — an unlikely concept, given that mad people (and people with learning difficulties, who are also included in this fictitious Walloon-y bin) would be likely to be MORE upset by submachine-guns blazing away over the dinner table than even such as I. Then one inmate snatches up a gun from a fallen soldier and gleefully wastes a couple of his fellow patients, crying, “I am like you! I am sane!” And we recognize, hopefully, that Fuller has one foot planted firmly in the terrain of allegory, and is Making a Point. In a scenario where some people are peacefully eating dinner and some are shooting each other, who is crazy? And if the killers are the sane ones, how else should one prove one’s sanity?

(My dad once replaced the wiring in a mental hospital, and met a chap on his way out who had been issued a Certificate of Sanity to help him find work. My dad felt vaguely jealous. HE doesn’t have a Certificate of Sanity.)

The other most obvious films about madness and war which come to mind are CATCH 22, which is TOO obvious to discuss here, and KING OF HEARTS, which some people like but I find twee. Alan Bates and Genevieve Bujold are both lovely, but the film seeks to set war (bad) and madness (lovely) as opposites, and has to lie through its teeth to do so. Or maybe it’s just total ignorance bout mental illness, I don’t know. The point is related to Fuller’s — mad people don’t make wars — but it’s not really true, as CATCH 22 can demonstrate.

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So I had worries about Raymond Bernard’s UN AMIE VIENDRA CE SOIR… (A FRIEND WILL COME TONIGHT…) would tackle its subject, an insane asylum in the dying days of Nazi-occupied France. But, since I knew Bernard’s work from his Pathe-Natan super-productions CROIX DES BOIS and LES MISERABLES, I shouldn’t have worried. The only weaknesses in this 1946 movie are that, coming right after the war, it portrays its German characters in broadly stereotyped terms, and contains a little too much triumphal material on the heroes of the Resistance. Both those stances are broadly true and respectable, but rather simple and uninteresting dramatically — but one can see why the French would have needed to hear them in ’46.

The film’s strengths are in its unsentimental portrayal of the mad, and the crafty plotting which sees a number of imposters planted amid the staff, inmates and neighbours of the asylum. There’s a Jewish fugitive, a British parachutist, a couple of Resistance fighters, a German spy, and one Resistance leader whose true identity is known only by… but that would be telling.

The actors who may or may not be playing those roles include the great Michel Simon, in the guise of a sweet-natured innocent with Boudou beard, who rejects the existence of evil and has declared himself President of his own republic of one, and romantic Madeleine Sologne, embarking on a tentative romance with a Swiss doctor, Paul Bernard (a favourite of Jean Gremillon). Oh, and Howard Vernon, whose experience in covert shenanigans here would doubtless stand him in good stead for his future collaborations with Jesus Franco.

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The treatment of madness allows for some humour, but I think that’s permissible — the movie is quite clear that mental illness is not a delightful escape from reality, but often a torment and something which makes the sufferer unable to function socially. The treatment of war is a touch bloodless, except in the startling references to Nazi death camps and the campaign of sterilisation and extermination, preceding the war, carried out in the name of eugenics and exciting no major opposition from outside Germany, which rid the world of those whose physical and mental disabilities had them classified as “life unfit for life.”

Both the spying and deceit, and the insanity, are great excuses for Bernard to deliver up his trademark Dutch tilts, a staple of his filmmaking since at least the early 30s (LES MIS is full of them). I haven’t seen THE CHESS PLAYER (1927) so I dunno if he was leaning to the side even then, but I know it intercuts a piano recital with military activity — something repeated here.

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The movie, which I think is a great one, may also be suggesting that the strife of war will send France itself, and possibly its director in person, mad. Raymond Bernard was Jewish, and had spent the war in hiding, in fear for his life, while his father, the writer Tristan Bernard, was interned at the camp at Drancy, which ruined his health and led to his death just after this film was released.

Eclipse Series 4: Raymond Bernard (Wooden Crosses / Les Miserables) (The Criterion Collection)

 

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17 Responses to “The Madness of War”

  1. Penfold Says:

    You really must see The Chess Player; a clip is on youtube which does convey the craft of the filmmaking, and the wonderful original score, but doesn’t have the magic of the sequence you mention, where the Princess we see here plays the Independence tune as she hears a battle raging in the distance; this is intercut with – and superimposed onto – the most majestic cavalry charge ever committed to film…..which only exists in her head……AND the bloody massacre that is actually occurring. The charge sequence was shown by Kevin Brownlow to Tony Richardson during preproduction for Charge of The Light Brigade, which KB edited……and as a result the charge has the same structure. We see the charge from various angles, from inside and outside, cutting increasing in rapidity until you’re just getting flashes of silhouettes rather than any focussed image.
    It does have its longeuers when we head to the court of Catherine The Great, but it also has an ending that will give you the creeps…….

  2. Penfold Says:

    Sorry, forgot the link…. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ck3ldWe_l3M

  3. Thanks! This movie was a reminder that I’ve been holding off on Bernard’s other films too long.

  4. The other obvious candidate for films about war and madness is Regeneration. not a masterpiece, but a dignified intelligent film that looks at shell shock in its WWI context.

  5. Yes, a decent movie. I don’t think they really understood what psych wards are like — odd, since it’s easily researched — but it has some very strong scenes. I think they made a mistake de-gaying the book though. They apparently thought they were making it more commercial. It wasn’t the least bit commercial, but some sexulity could only have helped it.

  6. La Faustin Says:

    Have you seen John Huston’s LET THERE BE LIGHT?

  7. Yes — extraordinary. It should be studied by drama students, apart from anything else. Could never be made now, for mainly political/legal reasons, though someone should try.

  8. The Master “samples” Let There Be Light in its early scenes showing Leaf when he returns from the war.

  9. I have to see this one. I agree with your opinion about King of Hearts, so I’m sure I’ll agree about this one, too. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Thanks for the intriguing review. I agree that the King of Hearts tries a little hard (poor Alan Bates). This sounds like a fascinating film. Glad you shared it!

  11. I know there are people who love King of Hearts and I don’t want to tain on anyone’s parade. As long as you recognise it’s a little starry-eyed about mental illness I guess it’s OK to like it.

  12. What a great review. My favorite line: “And we recognize, hopefully, that Fuller has one foot planted firmly in the terrain of allegory, and is Making a Point.” This movie is now on my list of “to-be-watched,” thanks!

  13. The Big Red One has an excellent restored DVD. Not perfect, but excellent. Alas the French DVD of A Friend Will Come Tonight is without subtitles. It really needs to be more widely available.

  14. “Yes, a decent movie. I don’t think they really understood what psych wards are like — odd, since it’s easily researched — but it has some very strong scenes. I think they made a mistake de-gaying the book though. ”
    Craiglockhart wasn’t set in psych wards though: the patients were officers with particular privileges as a result- there’s the terrifying “treatment” given to a private soldier later in the film to emphasise it.
    Regeneration the book wasn’t very gay- Billy has an affair with a girl, and I think his bisexuality only comes out in the later volumes of the trilogy. There is more emphasis on Billy and Rivers- who is portrayed as so repressed as to be asexual- than on Sassoon and Owen than in the book.

  15. When you group a bunch of traumatised people togethe the atmosphere of distress is palpable, and I didn’t feel that in the film except in key moments. That doesn’t change whether the people are officers or enlisted men. I’m not suggesting it should have looked like Bedlam, just that the people seemed too at ease.

    I’ve been in Craiglockhart when it was still being converted from a hospital and it still had a melancholy about it. It’s rather lovely now — a friend got married there.

  16. What interesting subject matter for a WWII film! I’ve never seen this one, but when you mentioned Dutch angles, I wondered if the film had a noir look and/or tone to it. Would you say it did?

  17. Bits of the visual style are very noir — and the style of French cinema immediately before, during and after the war has many similarities with noir — fatalism, doomed romance, romanticized criminals, shadowy goings-on. Also, the sheer number of unmaskings here beats even The Narrow Margin — it ought to get ridiculous but the scenario has carefully established numerous reasons for impersonation…

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