One of my purchases from the beloved Mercer Street Books of New York was a volume called Merely Colossal by Arthur Mayer, subtitled The Story of the Movies from the Long Chase to the Chaise Longue, a humorous account of the author’s career in movie promotion, exhibition, distribution, etc. It looked like the kind of book you might never see twice, so I couldn’t let it go, even though at $9.95 it was more expensive than most of my purchases.
Mayer talks about his days running a film import company, distributing THE NEW GULLIVER, a Soviet animation which had been banned in the USSR for perceived counter-revolutionary tendencies: the powers that be were still willing to allow it to be shown in America, since that would bring in a little cash and the audience would be pre-corrupted. I noted this because one of my prouder accomplishments in life is having helped to get a copy of this movie to Ray Harryhausen, who remembered seeing it in the 30s, and whose career it had helped inspire (although the lion’s share of the credit must go to KING KONG, of course).
Mayer also mentions making a tidy profit on ROME: OPEN CITY, since audiences assumed that the title must refer to an openness to decadence and debauchery, whereas René Clément’s “documentary” BATAILLE DU RAIL flopped. This reminded me that I hadn’t seen the 1946 wartime drama, a kind of French answer to neo-realism, so I popped it in my Maidston supermarket-brand blu-ray player and pressed PLAY…
It isn’t a documentary, of course — Clément uses actors, and everything is staged and scripted, but in the days when all documentaries were assumed to require reconstruction and staging, I can see how it could be taken as a kind of verité: it’s location shot, based on fact, and has a rough texture to it that smacks of authenticity.
In reality, the purpose is somewhat propagandistic — Clément’s tales of the Occupation all traffick in “the myth of Resistance,” implying that the whole of France was involved in actively resisting the Nazi occupiers, with the exception of a few quislings and collabos, regarded with contempt by all right-thinking Frenchies. In fact, as Melville pointed out, at the start of the Occupation there were only a few hundred in the Resistance, and the impulse to get along was at least as prevalent as the tendency to defy.
But anti-German sabotage on the railway lines, often an inside job, was a big enough deal that Jean Renoir’s THIS LAND IS MINE!, made in Hollywood, references it. Clément’s film concentrates solely on this area, suggesting that the Germans were consistently thwarted by crafty railwaymen (which raises awkward questions about how the mass deportation of Jews could be carried out).
If the comforting myth, intended to soothe a nation humiliated by defeat and collaboration, is not 100% convincing, the atmosphere and environment of Clément’s film certainly is. Black and whte cinematography is so good for capturing texture, and the clanking, hissing machinery captured by Henri Alekan’s camera here has a fierce power, anticipating the steam-driven nightmares of early Lynch. Clément had assisted on Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE, and it’s amazing to think of Alekan lensing two such contrasting shows in a single year.
Clément’s approach does share with Cocteau an infusion of poetry — he isn’t really a social realist elsewhere in his career, and this “documentary” is enlivened by an imaginative eye which can penetrate character. As one rebellious engineer stands in line to be executed, Clément shows the last sights he’ll see, infusing each image — a spider on the brickwork, black clouds billowing from funnels — with an ecstatic intensity.
Fans of Frankenheimer’s THE TRAIN (and I’m one) will also be impressed by the industrial-scale destruction of rolling stock, with Clément’s insurrectionists gleefully trashing fifty-foot cranes and transport trains loaded with armoured tanks. All of this is arranged with sneaking subversion — maybe the railway men made such ideal resistance fighters because employees of large corporations are always looking for ways to get on over on their faceless employers anyway. War just offers an excuse to do it on a massive scale. The surreptitiousness of the sabotage reminds me of my school days — looking for ways to game the system without getting caught, or ways of annoying the enemy without them being able to say for sure you’re doing it on purpose.
And at the end of the colossal derailment, the most French thing imaginable: through the cascading debris, an accordion saunters down the hillside, a wheezing slinky of defiance.