After the fall of France in 1940 the film director, writer and artist émigré Jean Renor, like so many of the great European filmmakers of the 1930s and ‘40s upon being forced to flee their homelands under the ominously burgeoning shadow of the Nazi party, wound up trying to accommodate and adapt his individualistic talents to the rigid particularities of the Hollywood system of movie-making (in Renoir’s case, while making a home with his new partner in California), with only occasional and partial success. Nevertheless, few other filmmakers were better placed than he, in 1943, to preside over a studio project such as “This Land is Mine”: a film released to American audiences by RKO Radio Pictures during the height of the war, which attempted to evoke something of the problems, temptations and horrors of life as experienced by people existing at that moment under the rule of the Nazis in occupied Europe. What’s most noticeable and striking about the film now, is that, while serving well enough its propagandistic purpose, attempting to inspire intellectual and emotional support and understanding for what was going on in many areas of mainland Europe at the time, it also allowed Renoir to import some of the social and political themes (and his unique way of expressing them through subtle complexities of character) that were discernible in many earlier films of his, some of which, such as “La Grande illusion” and “La Règle du jeu”, would in future years come to be seen as great masterpieces of the cinematic arts. “This Land is Mine” probably doesn’t stand equal to the best of his work, yet it completely overcomes the jarring, anachronistic character that can often mar some of these wartime film efforts in the experience of a modern audience viewing them out of context in the present day, offering a subtle, charming, funny and often-times tragic, yet ultimately uplifting, portrait of the experiences of a handful of individuals whose responses to their little town’s predicament constitute a warning to all; featuring a superb cast with some great performances by the likes of Charles Laughton, (a radiant) Maureen O’Hara, and the super suave but ever-eel-like George Sanders.
The film opens on a quiet, sunny and eerily empty town square, that could be anywhere in central Europe but which is obviously set-designed to look a lot like 20th Century Vichy France even though all the signs, notices and storefronts are written in English and everyone seems to be American. A small child runs across the empty street and is quickly scooped up by a worried parent and whisked indoors. The camera pulls out from a close-up of an inscription that’s carved into the plaque at the base of the commemorative statue dominating the centre of the square; erected at the end of the First World War, it reads: “In memory of those who died to bring peace to the world”. As we register these words, the sound of engines fills the air and the old-world pleasance of the square is suddenly disrupted as it is besieged from all sides by German tanks, local people nervously emerging to stand and look from their doorways. A notice has been pasted up outside the town hall. It seems to adopt a reassuring tone and is signed by the Mayor, and a small crowd gathers around it; the notice claims that home law will continue to apply in civil cases and that no ordinary citizen going about their daily routine need notice any difference in their day to day life, or in the running of their schools, courts, police or public offices. Only those who oppose the Nazi military presence with violence will incur censure by the German District Commandant, Major von Keller. The message ends with a plea begging all citizens to co-operate in obeying regulations, ominously concluding with the words that this is the best way to help keep civilian life free.
The rest of the film is to follow the lives of a small group of ordinary people who range across the wide social spectrum that makes up town life, from the local school to the rail yards and on into the town hall itself. The positions these citizens usually occupy in the life of the town are to be affected in a multitude of ways by the Nazi presence, and each person is to be challenged by their interactions with the military forces: tempted either to collaborate out of simple fear for the future, or encouraged just to ignore what’s going on and turn a blind eye in the interests of preserving an easy life. The film starts by sketching sympathetic, often quite gently comic characters and situations which are beautifully rendered by the illustrious cast; but then goes on to show how the personal and private spheres they occupy are unavoidably intertwined with the politics of public life under a totalitarian regime, and a previously good-hearted people can quickly become grievously morally compromised if sufficient vigilance isn’t maintained against the creeping internal taint that is the end point of just ‘going along with the flow’.
Such considerations are far from the mind of soft-spoken and constitutionally timid schoolmaster Albert Lory (Charles Laughton). Gentle and mild-mannered to a fault, Lory is silently in love with his fellow colleague and next-door neighbour Louise Martin (Maureen O’ Hara), whom he sees each day at the school. She’s engaged to the suave and successful Superintendent at the railroad company, George Lambert (George Sanders), with the consequence that the portly, shabbily dressed and under-confident Lory doesn’t even consider the possibility of there ever being anything between himself and his heart’s love; he’s content just to worship her from afar, thankful for a simple smile or any sort of passing acknowledgement from her of his existence. But Albert, Louise and the head principle at the school, Professor Sorel (Philip Merivale), soon find themselves faced with the unhappy prospect of complying with an instance of just the sort of regulation which tears at the very conscious of anyone not willing to ignore the iniquities of Occupation: each of them has to instruct the children in their individual classrooms to go through each one of their history text books, tearing out specified pages which have been earmarked by the regime to be burned. Lory, ever eager to avoid conflict, tries to rationalise the disagreeable necessity of the task by telling himself that very little has been lost overall by this act of censorship; Louise meanwhile, attempts a mild form of resistance: instead of destroying the censored pages, she gathers them up to be hid in her room at home, telling the children that ‘the day will come when we paste them back where they belong!’
Laughton is at his most delightful and engaging as the wet, submissive and comical (but fundamentally sympathetic) Albert: unfortunately, the poor man is of such a nervous disposition that any kind of altercation or potentially troubling situation is intensely disagreeable to him. And particularly so the air raids now regularly being conducted by the Allies in order to knock out supply trains and local factories to stop them from being used to benefit the Nazis, which become the cause of a great deal of fear and misery for his palpitating lovesick heart. There’s a great scene in which the occupants of the school have to cram themselves into a dark and dingy shelter during a raid, and Albert races home to fetch his mother, claiming she gets scared when left on her own during such occurrences. But while the brave and beautiful Louise attempts to lead the children in a group song to drown out the noise of the siren and the bomb blasts, it is the bachelor schoolmaster who cowers in the corner, and his mother who attempts to fortify him with a consoling hug, much to the evident mirth of Albert’s pupils!
Albert’s mother is one of the main catalysts in the story, and her actions will determine the course of events that will decide the fates of many of the other characters in the film. The irony is that she is really only concerned about the fate of one person: her beloved Albert. Albert lives in the shadow of his elderly, eternally fussing mother, a woman who in some ways makes Mrs Norman Bates look balanced. If you are at all a fan of Universal’s horror cycle of the 1930s, particularly James Whale’s “The Invisible Man” and “The Bride of Frankenstein”, then you will realise the full dread of just what it means for Albert when I tell you that Mrs Lory is played by the very great Una O'Connor! A wonderful comic actress, usually seen in cameo roles as light relief, she was perhaps never better than she is here as the possessive, manipulative, shrieking hatchet-faced harridan who rules her grown-up son’s life, utilising a disturbing ability to infantilise him in every situation -- constantly nagging the timid schoolmaster to drink his milk at breakfast, and reminding him that he was ‘always so weak as a child’.
This weakness and timidity is the reason Mrs Lory has few qualms about, for instance, buying black market goods despite official rationing being in place -- thus keeping her son under the thumb and away from the ‘unhealthy’ influence of Louise and her joker of a brother Paul (“Cat People’s” Kent Smith) who live next door, making sure he's supplied with plenty of milk and lots of his favourite comfort food. O’Conner fans will be glad to hear that the actress delivers her full comic repertoire of exaggerated facial expressions and theatrical groans and shudders, and exercises a penchant for general beady-eyed busybodiness throughout Renoir’s film, but on this occasion there are serious consequences to her actions which affect everyone else around her. She observes disdainfully the activities of Paul Martin next door -- an apparently happy-go-lucky jovial man who, between shifts as a worker in the switching tower at the rail yard, happily socialises with Nazi troopers (much to the disgust of his own girlfriend who threatens to leave him over it) but in reality leads a double life as both the distributor of a Resistance news sheet and as a saboteur – a fact Mrs Lory has picked up on from her habit of observing the comings and goings in the Martin household. She looks contemptuously upon anything which disturbs the peace of her beloved son, and is quite happy to shoo away Nazi soldiers who break her prized crockery set (significantly, we learn, a gift from the Mayor) during a house search, but she also hates the troublemakers in the Resistance who make events like this an increasing and unwanted commonplace with their clandestine and disruptive activities.
The man best placed to exploit such grievances is the appointed German District Commandant, Major Erich von Keller (Walter Slezak), who, rather than adopting the brutish, clipped tone one normally associates with Nazi rule, adopts a gently-gently, ingratiatingly syrupy approach to attaining the co-operation of the great and the good in the town. Henry Manville, the Mayor (Thurston Hallis – who is made up to exploit his physical resemblance to the premier of Vichy France, Marshal Pétain), is persuaded to believe that he is really only serving the best interests of the community by his willingness to collaborate with the Nazi regime, yet quite clearly also benefits from it by being allowed to live a life of relative luxury and retain some degree of power over civil law. Meanwhile, Louise’s fiancé George Lambert (George Sanders) finds him-self tempted by von Keller’s apparent reasonableness, agreeing to cover up an act of sabotage at the rail yard he runs and label it an accident instead, so that von Keller will not find it necessary to carry out official Nazi policy in response to such actions: ‘if we call it sabotage I shall have to take hostages from the town and shoot them finally if the guilty men are not found’ he reminds the vacillating official. Lambert’s fear and mistrust of modern developments such as trades unions and socialism can also be used by von Keller to persuade him that co-operation is the best policy in order to create a strong cohesive community, but the film works at its best when it highlights the mental schism this inevitably creates in the characters which are drawn into accepting this at first persuasive, apparently reasonable way of thinking. When Paul’s Resistance activities result in the death of one of the Nazi escorts riding with the Mayor’s motorcade, von Keller rounds up hostages, including the school principle Professor Sorel (whom he suspects of writing for the resistance news sheet because of its inclusion of a quote from Tacitus taken from one of books on the banned list originally found in the school), to be executed if the culprits don’t hand themselves in. When Louise discovers her brother’s involvement, she’s proud of his patriotism and bravery but is placed in direct conflict with her fiancé Lambert who, not knowing of Paul’s involvement, still wants the culprits to be caught in the name of social harmony.
When terrified Albert (who also knows Paul and Louise’s secret) is also taken as a hostage, and is faced with the prospect of imminent execution, he finds the bravery within that he never knew he possessed in order to keep his mouth shut. But unfortunately, his distraught mother is not so circumspect and betrays Paul to George Lambert in order to get her son released; in turn Lambert betrays Louise and Paul to the Mayor; and the Mayor betrays everyone to von Keller. One of these betrayals will result in the suicide of one of the central characters – no longer able to maintain the mental compartmentalisation that’s necessary in order to function between his private betrayal and what he perceives to be his public duty. After a confused Albert stumbles in on the dead man and is wrongly accused of his murder, he quickly finds himself back in prison and faced with another tempting offer from von Keller to get himself off the hook, when the Mayor’s cowardly actions are threatened with exposure during the civil trial. The film ends with a lengthy courtroom speech from Laughton, which could have been tedious but in his expert hands remains gripping, in which he finally emerges as a man of true principle, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the concept of freedom.
One of the themes of the film seems to be that those who apparently seem publically strong on the outside and have maintained a public image of reliability and high status might actually be weaker than they seem to be within themselves. The Commandant admits to the Mayor early in the film that people who are afraid of losing their power, and who want stability and order, exist wherever one looks; and while it might seem easy for Americans and the British to denigrate collaboration, in actuality ‘we find such people everywhere. We found them in our own country, and that’s how the Nazis came to power – and we’ll find them in America too!’ Although nervous, bumbling and sensitive, it is Albert who finally manages to maintain his personal integrity, although he is sorely tempted at first to betray his core values to attain his personal freedom, until he sees from his prison cell window his old friend Professor Sorel (among a row of others from the town, including the priest) being lined up in front of a firing squad, and realises that he can only be truly free by standing firm to his belief in the values set down in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, values he repeats to his pupils at the end of the film while the Nazis wait outside to escort him to his fate.
“This Land is Mine” is an effective piece of historical wartime propaganda in support of General de Gaulle’s Free France movement against the collaborationist Vichy regime, but it still stands up today as an enjoyable character study with some delightful comic performances leavening the intended seriousness of the message without detriment to the film’s aims. It gets a decent if barebones treatment on this new UK release from Odeon Entertainment, which indeed features a strong clear transfer and robust mono audio. Charles Laughton is excellent throughout, Maureen O’Hara was at her most luminous and could’ve induced any man to march to his certain death for her during this period of her career; and the supports are all equally strong in their irrespective roles, making this a most enjoyable afternoon’s viewing for fanciers of classic ‘40s cinema.
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