Wednesday, June 25, 2014

LA BATAILLE DU RAIL (1946)

aka THE BATTLE OF THE RAILS

This WWII fiction film about French railway workers who became part of the Resistance by sabotaging rail traffic in the occupied zone is unusual in a few ways: It's not a documentary, though it often feels like one—and it is rumored that some actual footage of sabotage missions made it into the final film; many of the actors were non-professionals; and, perhaps in the service of verisimilitude, none of the characters is developed, and only one, the chief guy in the office who is also directing the resistance efforts, is in enough scenes to  become familiar to us. Instead of a narrative, the film is structured in chronological episodes just before, during and after D-Day, ending with the liberation of the town of St. Andre. In the beginning, we see small acts of smuggling—of packages and people—followed by the fairly subtle delaying of the arrival of trains packed with German soldiers. As the narrator tells us, the railmen's acts of sabotage were "grains of sand" to make grit in the Nazi war machine. The film does build to a climax of sorts when the railroad workers hear about the Allied landing; the last part of the movie follows the huge concerted effort to stop soldiers, tanks and weapons from reaching Normandy; the French get some help from an RAF air raid.

Even though we don't get to know any of the characters (who also remain mostly nameless), we do feel for them as individuals working against the evil of the Nazis. One remarkably well-done sequence occurs fairly early in the film; after some trains have been blown up, the Nazis, unable to pin down any saboteurs, take several workers hostage and eventually line them to be killed by a firing squad. The camera looks down the row of men facing a wall (pictured), as one by one they are picked off. Another notable scene near the end shows a train derailment that looks very real. This is an early work by director Rene Clement (FORBIDDEN GAMES, PURPLE NOON); his style is solid and assured, perhaps because he had shot a number of actual documentary films before this one. The print on the DVD from Facets is not in the best shape, and some of the subtitles are a little off when it comes to translating idioms; "Bon app├ętit" is shown as "Good appetite," and later odd phrases include "Ain't that a lark!" and "I like to realize…" But this is an oddity worth seeing. [DVD]

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