I read about this film many years ago but could never find it. I think it has now been restored in France, but the print I watched was OK (I don’t know its provenance). On its release in 1946, René Clément’s film was compared to the earliest works of Italian neo-realism, especially Rossellini’s Rome, Open City. Like that film it offers a narrative about the final years of occupation, this time in France. The neo-realist tag refers to both the number of non-professional actors, the location shooting and the use of long shot to encompass the contribution of many characters to the overall story. Once the euphoria of liberation and the promotion of the ‘myth’ of résistance had subsided, the film was then subject to a revisionist view and Clément found himself in the late 1950s/early 1960s subject to attacks from Truffaut and other Cahiers critics, despite his high reputation for films such as Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games, 1952). See, in particular, the discussion by critics in Cahiers 71, May 1957, included in Jim Hillier’s edited collection of Cahiers excerpts Vol 1: 1950s (BFI/Harvard UP 1985). They accuse Clément of taking a turn away from neo-realism and indulging in ‘academicism’ – going for expensive international films. Jacques Rivette is especially rude claiming that Clément (along with Henri Clouzot and Claude Autant-Lara) is a “coward . . . corrupted by money”.
When I first saw Plein de soleil (Purple Noon, 1960) I realised just how misguided Truffaut and co. were. The general revisionist view of French résistance and collaboration is a more complex issue. As we’ve noted several times on this blog, especially in our discussion of Un héros très discret (A Self-Made Hero, France 1996), the common myth circulated within French culture in the 1950s and up to the 1980s/90s was that most French people were actively engaged as résistance fighters or Nazi collaborators. Historians think now that most French people just tried to live their lives during the Occupation (or the closed world of collaborationist Vichy). Only a minority were actively resisting or collaborating. How individuals fared after 1940 was much more nuanced than the myth allowed.
One of the ‘godfathers’ of La nouvelle vague was Jean-Pierre Melville who had been active in the resistance and who went on to make important films set during the occupation including Le Silence de la mer (1949) and L’armée des ombres (Army of the Shadows, 1969). Those films were well received and have kept their status. Clément’s film deserves the same respect. Clément himself had previously made short films, including short documentaries from the mid 1930s onwards (he was born in 1913). One of these shorts, Ceux de rail (1942) depicted a rail journey from Nice to Marseille and appears to have prompted the ‘National Résistance’ organisation to encourage Clément to make La Bataille du rail.
The ‘Battle’ depicts the efforts by French railway workers to sabotage train movements and to hinder by any means possible the contribution of the railway system to the German war effort. In the early part of the film, Clément offers a montage of incidents showing how resistance fighters could be smuggled past German checkpoints inside a locomotive tender or in compartments used to transport animals, how bombs could be planted on locomotives and brakes cut or fuel drained away. In these scenes it is difficult to identify any significant characters or a specific narrative. Instead, this part of the film functions almost as a documentary – a manual on how to subvert the railway system. It’s worth noting that Clément begins the film with a warning posted by the Germans forbidding Jews to cross the ‘demarcation line’ between Vichy and the Occupied Zone. We see a woman and child be led away from a train at the border checkpoint.
In the second part of the film there is a strong narrative and some individualised characters. The narrative is a form of the classic ‘locomotive chase’ (i.e. like the Buster Keaton film The General). It is June 1944 and the Allies have landed in Normandy. The Germans need to re-inforce their Atlantic defences. Various troop trains and trains carrying tanks and field artillery are marshalled to be sent to Normandy. The résistance charges the railway workers to stop the trains at all costs. Some are derailed or bridges are blown-up. Eventually the narrative focuses on one branch line and one small town and Clément revels in the details of the workers’ methods and then an attack on an armoured train by the maquis. This is a very accomplished technical achievement by Clément and his cinematographer Henri Alekan. The production had the full support of SNCF and I’ve rarely seen shots of freight yards and engine sheds/turntables etc. as extensive as these in a fiction film. Clément doesn’t get lost in technicalities. There are key scenes involving railway workers (cheminots) taken by the Germans as hostages and executed in an attempt to deter sabotage. The German armoured train was preceded by a flat car carrying forced labour. When sabotaged track was spotted, the forced labour would be required to re-lay the track under German guns. The presence of the forced labour was also a problem for the maquis, who needed to avoid killing the innocent. We do in this second narrative recognise the regional track controller who organises the sabotage and any other methods to thwart the Germans. We also see his ‘fixer’ who is sent out by motor bike to relay instructions.
Although there are these individuated characters, La Bataille du rail does differ from the films of Rossellini (i.e. Rome, Open City and Paisa) in the way that it avoids ‘personal, emotional stories’ and therefore melodrama. Instead, it appears that everyone is allied in the attempt to defeat the Germans – not something that was necessarily the case but certainly something that would be supported by the film’s producers and sponsors, the National Résistance Council and SNCF.
I hope to find more examples of René Clément’s work in the 1940s and 1950s in order to see if the Cahiers criticism is valid. Susan Hayward in French National Cinema (Routledge 1993) calls La Bataille du rail, the French résistance film, though she also makes the point that it can be misread as creating the myth of résistance. Clément went on to make several other films set during the war. The late 1940s was a key period for films like this.
There is a useful essay on the film by Adrian Danks on Senses of Cinema.
Here’s an extract from the film in which, having already derailed a train, a railway worker sets out to sabotage the crane which is being used to clear wagons from the track (the sequence is largely dialogue free):