Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB. USA, 1943. Jean-Renoir- Dudly Nichols Productions, RKO Radio Pictures. Screenplay by Dudley Nichols. Cinematography by Frank Redman. Produced by Dudley Nichols, Jean Renoir. Music by Lothar Perl. Production Design by Eugène Lourié. Costume Design by Renié. Film Editing by Frederic Knudtson. Academy Awards 1943.
An small, unnamed European country is suffering under Nazi occupation, the brutish officers keeping control of the populace through intimidation, fear and manipulation. Charles Laughton plays a mild-mannered schoolteacher who is hen-pecked by his overbearing mother at home (Una O’Connor) and secretly in love with a fellow teacher (a radiant Maureen O’Hara) who is also his neighbour; as the screws tighten and resistance against the oppressors brings faint hope but mostly violent retributions, Laughton foolishly stumbles through conflicts until a key turn of the plot places him at the centre of everything. Jean Renoir called this his only propaganda film and it’s not hard to see why, likely put into production while isolationism was still a hotly-debated policy before Pearl Harbour turned this film into part of the movie industry’s contribution to the war effort. The story is a shameless excuse for political lecturing about the morality of taking sides in a violent conflict, but thanks to the likes of Renoir behind the camera it does manage to present nuances amid the ridiculous stereotyping: the perspective of collaborators is not supported but it is explored with sympathy, showing pity for people forced into actions whether good or bad, but the O’Connor character, and her overbaked performance playing her, is a two-dimensional annoyance that hints at some kind of emasculating force that Allies fear might lose them the war. Laughton overplays his character’s vulnerability (no one coughs THAT much after taking one puff of a cigarette), but his final speech is satisfying and the film earns a great deal of respect for being such a classy example of helping lift its audiences’ spirits without lying about the harsh reality of the world they were living in.