Unknown Soldier

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THIS LAND IS MINE is too magnificent for me to actually blog about. Emotive as propaganda, it achieves the level of high art by virtue of its beauty of spirit and aesthetics, and its sheer intelligence — Renoir and his script collaborator, Dudley Nichols, pose difficult questions about resistance to evil, and it’s to their credit that they avoid easy answers. Renoir gets the best out of his cast, with a career-best piece of work from Kent Smith, otherwise known as the most boring man in movies — not a bad actor at all, just one who never makes an impression (in NORA PRENTISS he gets seduced, corrupted, mutilated and executed, all without arousing a spark of interest). In the lead, Charles Laughton has a fantastic role, and avoids going OTT with it, while still allowing himself to make the kind of bold, striking choices only he could pull off. George Sanders, always welcome and always very fine, actually gets to stretch himself.

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But I’m not going to write about it, because this is all pitifully inadequate, failing to capture just what’s so exciting and moving about this perfectly judged movie. I just wanted to mention the opening sequence, where Renoir cuts around a town square in a series of striking leaps, using the WWI memorial as a focal point, spinning round it like a pole dancer, so to speak, in a manner quite comparable to Ozu’s jumps through interior space, using a red kettle as a sort of visual anchor, in EQUINOX FLOWER. To be clear, I’m talking about an impression of snappy movement created with a series of totally locked-off shots, so that the filmmaker seems to whisk us from one spot to another with the crack of a whip — truly dynamic cutting that smacks each composition down before us like a series of playing cards in what is unquestionably a winning hand.

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Psychologically, of course, these angle changes animate the soldier, almost like the waking lion in BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, and make him seem increasingly beleaguered and surrounded as the German troops flood the little town square. It’s a visual metaphor, probably the broadest in the film.

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As the sequence continues, our man is rapidly diminished to a tiny background figure, outnumbered and outgunned. While the narrative function is to simply show the occupation in progress, and the local Nazi commander arriving at the town hall to greet the mayor, a seemingly reluctant collaborationist who is really all to keen to succumb to greater force, a little allegory has been played out with our living statue friend, whose heart still beats like those of the lovers at the end of Carné’s LES VISITEURS DU SOIR.

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His last appearance is somehow the most diminished — the ranks of standing men, and the formality and symmetry of the frame, convert him into a piece of architecture again. In the final wide shot of the square, he’s totally absent, eclipsed by a German troop truck. Overwhelmed, engulfed, then finally buried.

Probably the highlight of my past year’s film viewing has been getting deeper into Borzage, and just starting to get into Renoir properly for really the first time.

This Land Is Mine [DVD]

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33 Responses to “Unknown Soldier”

  1. Great post about the opening of ”This Land is Mine!”. I never noticed the bit with the statue of a WWI poilu(that’s what the french call vets of the Great War, of which Renoir was one).

    It’s a really moving film and totally escapes the propaganda genre to make something timeless. To me the most remarkable thing is how the film feels so “French” despite it being a studio film, somehow the atmosphere is infused with what Renoir did in the 30’s. I think of ”This Land is Mine!” as a sequel to ”La Marseillaise”, a criminally underrated period film about the French Revolution.

    And you forgot to mention Maureen O’Hara…

  2. And Walter Slezak! And lots of things! Which I couldn’t talk about otherwise I would have found myself WRITING ABOUT THE FILM. Which I cannot do!

    Maybe I should watch Le Marsellaise next. Although I think Fiona will have me going for Diary of a Chambermaid (Paulette! Hurd!) so it looks like I’m going to start by pretty much watching all his American films (love The Southerner: “I don’t know anything about the south,” said Renoir, “but I understand peasants.”)

    An interesting choice to use mainly British actors in this one (I didn’t think about accents at all while watching it), and fairly Anglophone character names (George Lambert, Louise Martin), tying in with The Mortal Strom’s creation of a kind of everyplace. To me it wasn’t specifically French, in a way, although it had a lot of social detail that made it feel real.

  3. Another name: “Mayor Henry Manville” — not “Henri”, and with the comically apt surname: “man/town”.

  4. Renoir famously said that the theme of ”Grand Illusion” was that the world was divided by horizontal lines rather than vertical lines. What he meant by that was that a French farmer would have more in common with an American farmer than with someone of another class of his own country. The same applied to bankers, artists, politicians, housewives, prostitutes. This is the key to Renoir’s philosophy because he sees it as double edged and not necessarily as a “great brotherhood of man” thing that people insist on painting him as. So obviously Renoir would say that he “understand peasants”. Although I personally don’t think ”The Southerner” is among his very best, a damn good film though and one of Zachary Scott’s two best(and among his very own two favourite) films. The other is of course Bunuel’s ”The Young One”.

    Watching Renoir’s American films is a good start since it’s kind of looked at as a mistake and aberration(though not by Cahiers du Cinema who took it seriously). ”Swamp Water”, his first American film, is also pretty good. My favourite of course is the last one, ”The Woman on the Beach”, film noir plus expressionism plus Renoir’s eccentric and complex view of humanity. There’s one startling scene where Joan Bennett(who I am a huge fan of) lights a cigarette and poses Gallically, looking for all the world like Jean Gabin as she raises her eyebrows challenging Robert Ryan(as reliable as always).

    One of my favourite Renoir anecdotes(he’s like Sam Fuller in that sense, lots of funny stories) is his experience working on ”Swamp Water”. He told a prop man that he wanted a couple of chickens in a scene. The prop man used to Hollywood excess was stunned and thought Renoir was off his rocker so he went and flooded the set with chickens. Renoir told him again that he only wanted three…but the prop man said what did he mean by “three chickens”.

    Renoir loved America despite not finding Hollywood conducive and he basically spent much of his final years there, travelling back and forth between France and the US. When he returned to France of course, it had totally changed and the world that Renoir began making films in was long and gone forever.

  5. Must get a copy of Renoir’s book. Read it ages ago, when I’d only seen three of the big films (and I’m wondering now if they’re somehow a bad place to start: I think Rules of the Game is probably going to work a lot better for me when I go back to it having seen a lot of others). I recall the book has some great stuff on directing Laughton.

    Swamp Water is another one I have lined up ready to run. Love Walter Huston to death.

    Maybe Woman on the Beach, which I watched fairly recently, will also work better when I see it again. It didn’t quite catch fire for me, despite my enthusiasm for the cast.

  6. It also has Anne Baxter in one of her best roles. Another Renoir anecdote : Fox for the casting of a rural peasant girl insisted on Linda Darnell who came from a similar background over the middle class Anne Baxter. But Renoir found out that Darnell couldn’t pass as a rural girl because her accent had lost all trace of local color owing to demands of upward mobility, whereas Baxter maintained the accent. Realism comes in all shapes and sizes and totally sheds light on Renoir’s ideas about horizontal lines.

    Coming to Renoir via ”Rules of the Game” is never a very good idea since that’s one of Renoir’s most accomplished and complex films. The same can be said about Ford and ”The Searchers”. ”Grand Illusion” is better. Even more suited is ”Boudu saved from drowning” or ”Le Crime de M. Lange”.

    Renoir and Laughton got along very well. He was a witness at Renoir’s second(and technically illegal) wedding with Dido Freire(a Brazilian lady who happened to be Albert Cavalcanti’s niece) and Renoir enjoyed working with him and Maureen O’Hara(who was of course discovered by Laughton). Renoir admitted however that Laughton had his moments when he needed someone of extraordinary and maddening patience. He cited the scene before his final speech where he sees his mentor, waving at him while filed in a firing squad, through prison bars and said Laughton exhausted many takes before he finally got it right(and no arguments with the end result).

  7. Woman on the Beach is a great maudit and greatly influenced Rivette. Raymond Durgnat’s “Jean Renoir” is the best book on him, IMO.

  8. I have read some excerpts from that, it’s out of print now apparently. Very interesting. Of Renoir, I have read Andre Bazin’s incomplete and unfinished book and it’s certainly fascinating especially Bazin’s essay on Renoir’s entire French period where he discusses his idea of realism in relation to Renoir. The book’s filmography is also stunning in it’s own right with contributions from different Cahiers critics dealing with each and every film.

    Have you seen Renoir’s ”La Nuit du Carrefour”, I haven’t found that anywhere, that’s the only major Renoir I haven’t seen? And since I just saw it again, what do you think of ”Elena and Her Men”.

  9. Whew. Must watch out for the Durgnat. Love his stuff. I never really get on with most of Bazin’s ideas — I sort of get them, and think they’re clever, but I have some kind of a “Yes, but…” reaction I can’t explain.

    La Nuit de Carrefour seems to be the one everybody is after — if I ever lay hands on it I’ll never get through copying it for all the folks who want to see it.

    Elena and Her Men is lined up too. http://cinemasparagus.blogspot.com/2008/03/elna-et-les-hommes.html
    A very good post on Craig Keller’s blog.

    I remember the Laughton problem story, when he’s supposed to react to the execution of his mentor, and Laughton couldn’t “see” him (the offscreen action wasn’t being staged for him). “I can’t see him,” said Laughton. “But he is there,” said Renoir, and that sort of hypnotized Laughton into doing it.

    Still so much Rivette to see too…

  10. Raymond Durgnat is my all-time favorite film critic. I will be quoting a very important passage from him for “Barbara Steele Day” on Dennis Cooper’s blog, which should be going up on the 26th (I’ll be sure to link it then.) Durgnat, Jonathan Rosenbaum and I once collaborated on a piece for “Film Commnet” entitled “Cary Grant’s Socks.” I believe it can b found online.

  11. http://www.lightsleepercinemag.com/reviews/obscureobjectsofdesire.php

    Looks great!

    Barbara Steele day? Can I come? Can I write something?

  12. Maybe Bazin doesn’t translate well into English. I myself never have problems except reading it twice. One thing about it is that it’s pleasurable to engage with his writings. One essay of his, “The Life and Death of Super-Imposition” available online I think was especially illuminating. I also loved what he wrote about ”Los Olvidados” and for his piece on Visconti’s ”La Terra Trema” where he notes that Visconti’s aristocractic background infuses the peasant characters with the nobility of Renaissance princes.

    Oh and David, here’s the link at Light Sleeper…
    http://www.lightsleepercinemag.com/reviews/obscureobjectsofdesire.php
    Fascinating piece and totally makes sense. Bazin once wrote similarly about a scene in ”French CanCan” where a woman wearing red opens a window in front of which there is green foliage and she takes a yellow napkin out and it’s composed so that it gives a precise visual effect and function. Bazin noted that the scene isn’t dependent on plot at all but rather it’s just there as part of a poetic flourish on the part of Renoir, fils.

  13. Wow, all three of us linking simultaneously. Nice. And wish you a happy Babs Steele day.

  14. I absolutely love this film! In short, it is the one that turned me into a film lover (and a Laughton fan for life, to boot, ha, ha)

    Like other films of Renoir’s American career, this one had been overlooked, and only recently rediscovered: it is significant that France, which hated this film on release, was the first to release it on DVD. Likewise, it has been historically dismissed as “Wartime propaganda”, but many people who sees this film nowadays tell me how the ending makes tears come to their eyes (not unlike Maureen’s). In this regard, it is a more universal than coveted pieces of WW2 propaganda as “In Which We Serve” and likely vindications “warrior spirit”. Here, it is like Renoir is yelling “It’s not war we’re talking about, but about the Rights Of Man”! (his Germans are, without doubt, the enemy, but never demons: major Von Keller’s (Slezack) manner (with Sanders, or Laughton) is mephistofelically seductive, not bluntly “I Haff vays to make you talk” dictatorial.

    And probably the film bosats some of the best performances in the careers of everyone involved.

  15. ————————————
    And probably the film bosats some of the best performances in the careers of everyone involved.
    ————————————-

    Definitely. Walter Slezak’s charming Nazi(“Ah Shakespeare, we love him in Germany, the English don’t understand him!”) inspired Hitchcock to cast him in ”Lifeboat” and also paved way for a career typecast as villains. Another was Leo McCarey’s bit for the war effort, “Once Upon A Honeymoon”. But hey he worked with Dreyer(”Mikael”), Hitchcock, Renoir, McCarey, Minnelli.

    Maureen O’Hara later did brilliant work with Ford of course but this role here much more than ”How Green Was My Valley” prepared her for her future work as tough, feisty ladies(though here, under Renoir’s eye, she’s less sentimental). For Laughton, this was the rare major leading part and one that was highly complex and daring(even today). The manner in which a timid coward becomes a hero without recourse to violence. Probably his richest role after ”Ruggles of Red Gap”(the film which probably influenced Renoir in casting him, McCarey being a favourite of his).

  16. The more wartime films I see, the more surprised I am at the subtle distinctions possible… some do demonise the enemy (but the biggest weakness is often that they can’t make the Nazis bad ENOUGH, since cinema really hadn’t dealt with that kind of evil before) some are rather stark warnings about how bad it’s going to be (The Way Ahead/Immortal Battalion) and some are celebrations of the human urge to survive and hang onto humanity. In Which We Serve isn’t just or even mainly about “warrior spirit”, I think it’s about the British way of life in general. The ship is the Ship of Britain.

    On a simple thematic level, This Land is Mine can be seen as the story of a man who finds his courage, which is what’s so moving about it I think. It turns out to be political courage instead of physical courage, but it’s clearly a powerful weapon.

  17. Well bear in mind that Renoir was also dealing with his own position when making this film. The film for instance although obviously French is nominally set in an unnamed country. Renoir knew very well that his film would never be shown to the audience that needed it, that is the people of Vichy France which banned Hollywood films for the duration of the war. So he can’t really sincerely touch on the actual physical resistance(the one Resistance character shown here is shown matter-of-fact without any hero worship) and what he instead did was the difficulty of ordinary common citizens to find a way to resist and he felt that that was something the citizens of the future invaders of France should care about. Laughton is essentially a Renoir stand-in in that sense. Their slight resemblance cements it.

  18. When Barbara Steele Day goes up you’re all most definitely invited over to post comments.

  19. Brilliant. We’ll be there!

    I think there are a couple lines in This Land is Mine! about countries which may yet be enslaved by Nazism, and which will face the same dilemmas. It certainly felt like they were addressing the possibilities of resistance in a possible occupied Britain or even America. While also dismissing the idea that the reality of collaborationism was uniquely French (although France was distinct from other occupied countries in that the legitimate govt made a deal with Germany in order to continue to exist).

  20. “Probably his richest role after ”Ruggles of Red Gap”(the film which probably influenced Renoir in casting him, McCarey being a favourite of his)”
    Also, Renoir & Laughton were good friends ;D.

    Alexander Sesonske, in an article about this film, wrote how, while Renoir was working on ideas for a film (his rough idea was a film about children in wartime), one day laughton came to his house, and they talked about Alphonse Daudet’s short story “The Last Class”: this suggested to Renoir a film about teachers, the ending of the film and… the lead actor.

    Sesonske also mentions that Laughton suggested his old protegé O’Hara for the role (Renoir initially had in mind an older woman). Also, the little Jewish boy was played by John Donat, the son of a god friend of Charles, Robert Donat.

    (As a matter of fact, I suspect -even though I don’t have any written reference- that Louise Martin’s cat is actually Laughton’s cat ;p)

    Re your last comments, Renoir was concerned about a simplistic vision he felt Americans (and other allies) had about France (and other occupied countries) surrendering all-too easily to the Germans… Hence the fuzzy national identity of the characters (except the Germans, ;p), the posters and newspapers in English, etc… it is a way of saying “it could be you”, or adressing the question “how would you react if you found yourself in the situation the French, The Poles, the Czechs, etc… are now?”, And long after the war, this question still works.

    I didn’t mean earlier to say that those “warrior spirit”-fostering movies were bad: I actually think that they’re very good, but I also think that “In Which We Serve” or, for instance, Olivier’s “Henry V”, quality, excellent propaganda films as they are, are still too bound to a certain country, and to a “it’s US against THEM” feeling…

    In “This land Is Mine” (and that’s one of the reasons I love it) the problem everyone faces isn’t, in teh first instance, the guy in an enemy uniform, butb the fact that you can become your own “other”: the enemy is within, you can surrender and accept the occupation, or resist and remain true to yourself (and your freedom), which goes beyond the mere notion of “Allies Vs. Nazis”… Laughton’s character has to vanquish his own fears and weaknesses before stepping out and voicing his discontent with the occupation: the final fate Albert Lory is ultimately of little importance , for, as far as he is concerned, he has won, he can speak openly about the love he feels for Louise, and he is free (As exemplified in the last scene, where he decides to put his hand in his pocket

  21. “and he is free (As exemplified in the last scene, where he decides to put his hand in his pocket” — yes, that’s beautiful.

    Henry V is somewhat simplistic as a war film (I partly blame Shakespeare!). In Which We Serve is interesting since the enemy barely exist, they’re a big impersonal force, “the war”. It seems different to those films where the enemy is offscreen, depersonalized and therefore scarier (“Charlie” crouching in the undergrowth) because it’s just ships. The film details and celebrates the British way of life: I guess the other half of the equation, the Nazi way of life, didn’t have to be spelled out.

    On a related subject, Val Lewton’s Mademoiselle Fifi is another fine film — not AS good — about the occupation, only in period dress.

  22. For me the finest wartime films from Britain are the ones by the Archers. Above all, ”Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” a really funny, moving, radical epic which began as a propaganda film but ended up being a satire and a lament about the state of things leading to the war(acknowledging it could have been avoided for one thing) and also a gentle but tough acceptance of the imminent end of the British Empire. And an emigre German got the best speech while an old-guard softie of British charm and decency got the best line – “I was a soldier when you were in college, I was a soldier when you were ten years old and I was a soldier when you were nothing more than a toss between a boy and girl’s name.” Amazing that a film-maker concieved such a vision during that time. No wonder Churchill went ballistic.

  23. Arthur, “Blimp” is one of my favourite films… Apart from a delightful cast, it is not a one-note propaganda film: while it is clear there that Nazism must be opposed, it is all put subtly, and giving room for other points of view: it is interesting that it shows Anton Walbrook’s resentment against his victors right after WW1, and then his later perception as a refugee (and

    For me, the thing that wins me over about “blimp” is that it is not just about a British soldier, but this British soldier’s relationship through the years with a German counterpart.

    David, when I first went to see Kenneth Brannagh’s “Henry V”, I wondered if it would hold up its own against the classic Olivier version (i’m generally skeptical about remakes): after watching, I found myself liking the Brannagh version better… I wonder if it may be due to the fact that Brannagh didn’t feel compelled to film the play as a morale booster (as Olivier inevitably had to, owing the circumstances), and therefore focused in other aspects of the play.

  24. It’s like the quintessential love story between two men, like ”Jules et Jim”, in fact likening it to a British ”Jules et Jim”(avant-la-lettre) is perhaps apt. Although instead of one Jeanne Moreau we have three(very different) Deborah Kerrs.

    The thing about ”Colonel Blimp” is that it greatly criticizes the Allies’ hypocrisy at the end of WW1(one of the factors that alas made Nazism concievable). WW1 all said and done was essentially a battle between a bunch of imperial powers to see who had the biggest penis size and Germany ended up being humiliated at the treaties because it lost while British imperialist practises went unchanged. And the film makes it clear that the Allies in the First War weren’t above torture while Candy is oblivious to it(and personally would oppose it). But then as bitter as Theo is because of that and the naivete of his friend he still puts friendships and human feelings over politics and is a real German patriot and so detests that hack painter who took over Germany.

  25. What makes Blimp a totally unsuccessful propaganda film, and at the same time helps make it a great film, is that Powell had total sympathy for Blimp’s “fair play” philosophy, which is theoretically what the film is arguing against. You can’t win a war by fighting fair, says the film — but Powell, and Major Clive Wynn-Candy believe you should.

    The baffling bit in Henry V is the speech about how 1000 Frenchmen have died but only 8 Brits (I’m going from memory, but my figures aren’t that far off). I think Branagh only included it because Olivier didn’t, but it makes no sense in his “war is a dirty business” scheme of things. I don’t think Branagh really knew what he was trying to say, although he achieves some nice moments.

    What Olivier has is that metaphor for the play-goer’s experience, with the stage sets and makeup becoming real — that’s the real point of his film, and he could have done it with any play that had a sufficiently broad scope.

  26. “The thing about ”Colonel Blimp” is that it greatly criticizes the Allies’ hypocrisy at the end of WW1”
    Yes, I believe that they couldn’t care less about troubles in post-war Germany (which led to outlandish inflation, crisis and political unrest, being this a perfect breeding environment for nazism), as far as they paid the war debt, everything was OK…

    “And the film makes it clear that the Allies in the First War weren’t above torture while Candy is oblivious to it”
    Indeed, as Candy leaves, a toughened Colonial officer makes to the prisoners that he “has ways to make them talk”, and among these prisoners we have Kretchmar-Schuldorff’s son.

    I think it was very intelligent of Powell-Pressburger to point at that. As a matetr of fact, between wars, most people couldn’t care less about Mazism ruling Germany or Fascism ruling Italy. Later, when those countries backed the fascist uprising in Spain with material and troops, the rest of democratic countries just looked the other side… What could be wrong about Hitler? “Oh, but he restored order in Germany!”… And Mussolini? “Now in Italy trains reach the station in time!” Those who objected were dubbed as troublemakers.

    …And then : WW2 starts and Nazis (Voilà!)become the ultimate evil. They did so because no-one stopped them when they were budding… That’s why I like “Blimp” or “This Land is Mine”, as they are films which state that the enemy (or its strenghth) is not something alien to us… There is a good point in Von Keller’s (Slezack) about their enemies being already invaded: it’s the “honest Lamberts” and the “corrupted Manvilles” that exist in every country and make the occupation possible… And there the Lories have the tough choice of submit and live, or oppose at the risk of perishing. It’s not a matter of a “right way” against a “wrong way”, it is pointing at how your “right way” can be twisted if teh wrong elements get through the cracks.

  27. My favourite Renoir films are probably “Woman on the Beach” and “La Nuit du carrefour”. The latter is one of Renoir’s most sensual films.
    Peter

  28. If you have a copy of that one, please share it!

  29. I have a copy of the film, but I don’t have any means of making another copy.

  30. Damn. Whereabouts in the world are you? Maybe one of my contacts could meet you and make a copy. You wouldn’t have to let it out of your sight…

  31. Do you have a private email?

  32. cairnsdavidster AT gmail DOT com

    Look forward to hearing from you.

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