Monday, August 12, 2002


[Warning: some plot point spoilers are included below]

Despite an only so-so critical reputation, I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. I'm always interested in seeing WWII narrative propaganda movies; this one worked quite well as propaganda, as an exciting story, and as an examination of the shades of gray involved beneath labels like good, evil, brave, and cowardly. Only in the last 15 minutes did I feel let down, when the movie stops dead in its tracks for too much speechifying, most of it by Laughton; even he can't quite save the material there. In an unspecified European village in a country that has been overrun by the Nazis, Laughton is a timid schoolteacher who won't stand up to his rowdy students, or for his principles when the Nazis start to censor teaching material. He also has a crush on a lovely neighbor, Maureen O'Hara, but his mother (Una O'Connor), whom Laughton lives with, has put a damper on that. O'Hara's brother, Kent Smith, is secretly a Resistance fighter who assassinates a Nazi officer and winds up in big trouble. George Sanders, as O'Hara's boyfriend, is a local industrialist who advocates collaborating with the enemy and winds up betraying Smith to the Nazis (after O'Connor betrays Smith to Sanders). Eventually, Laughton rises to the occasion and winds up a tragic hero.

I'm a big Laughton fan and, for the most part, he gives his usual excellent performance until the interminable propaganda speeches at the end. Kent Smith is surprisingly good, given his usual propensity for woodeness. O'Connor (who I like despite the over-the-top screeching she is usually called upon to do in her roles) was a little more subtle than usual. Walter Slezak is fine as a "civilized" Nazi who wants as little trouble as possible. But the real surprise for me was George Sanders. The more I see of him, especially in his 40's movies, the more impressed I am. He had the most complex part, a man who "collaborates" with the Nazis and genuinely thinks he's doing so for good philosophical reasons. His internal torture when he realizes the implications of what he has done is expressed very well by Sanders and he turns the character into something very much like a tragic anti-hero. Yes, it's wartime propaganda, but I think it holds up surprisingly well. Directed by Jean Renoir, so the unspecified country is probably France.

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