The Madness of War
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.
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.
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.
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.