This last week has given us two unusual titles broadcast by the ever-intriguing Talking Pictures TV – a rare Ida Lupino film from the Filmakers (more on that later) and this co-production monster. Is Paris Burning? is exactly the kind of production that interests us on this blog. It’s a mammoth production which attempts to represent the successful attempt by the Allies and the French résistance forces to take back control of Paris in 1944 before the city could be literally rased to the ground as Hitler demanded. The title refers to the desperate demand by Hitler at the moment of German capitulation. Many reviews and commentaries compare the film to the similarly large-scale production of The Longest Day in 1960. This is understandable but there also some important differences between the two. I would also bracket Is Paris Burning? with The Victors (UK-US 1963), Carl Foreman’s excellent film about American GIs in the European campaign.
It might be helpful to begin with the details of the broadcast print. Since Talking Pictures TV has ad breaks I can’t be sure of the length of the film but I think it conforms to the usual stated length of 175 minutes. It appears to be the American print as distributed by Paramount. The film is dubbed into English and was broadcast in a ratio close to the intended 2.35:1. IMDb tells me there was also a 70mm print blown-up from the 35mm original and projected in 2.20:1 and that might be the TV ratio as well? The film was shot in Black and White but the final shot of the city and the closing credit sequence appears in colour and was framed in a slightly narrower ratio within the widescreen Black and White frame.
The film is directed by René Clément and written by a host of writers adapting and presumably adding to material adapted from a book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. The lead writers, credited with the screenplay, appear to be Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola. As far as I can make out, this is essentially a French production with American funding, which offers a host of American stars in return for control over the script. The 1960s was a major period of ‘international productions’, often by American independent producers persuading Hollywood studios to finance films made in Italy or France or Spain. These were the so-called ‘runaway productions’. Hollywood studios also poured funding into the British film in the 1960s. At the same time, various producers in Europe attempted to mount big budget genre pictures in various European locations. These would often have international casts and many would be made in English or dubbed into English and other languages. It’s worth remembering that the Italian, French and West German film markets were still maintaining admissions in the 1960s in contrast to the big declines in the UK and US. Many of these films were criticised, partly because the language and cultural differences between crews, actors and producers caused problems and sometimes muddled and incoherent film narratives. Is Paris Burning? seems to have suffered from this incoherence problem.
The situation in France in August 1944 was complicated following the D-Day landings in June. The British and Canadians were moving through Northern France with the intention of liberating Belgium and the Netherlands. The Americans were further south but were focused on reaching the Rhine rather than attacking German defences around Paris. A joint American and French campaign launched earlier in August from landings in the South of France made rapid progress northwards and this prompted the resistance groups in Paris to consider mobilisation. (The campaign in the south involved the French ‘Army of Africa’ as detailed in the film Indigènes (Algeria-France 2006)). The German occupation of Paris was always seen as important in ideological terms. Hitler seemingly enjoyed the humiliation heaped on France and the French in turn reacted to that. I don’t think Paris was bombed by the Allies (unlike many strategic French targets). I know that the RAF flew several low-level morale-boosting sorties over Paris for propaganda purposes without attacking targets. De Gaulle was insistent that Paris was to be ‘liberated’ by Free French forces.
IMDb carries an interesting range of ‘User comments’ on the film which range from the ecstatic to the woeful in terms of their appreciation, arguably with more towards the lower end of the scale. Most of the comments appear to be by Americans (as most comments are on the site) but the most perceptive are from Americans who have lived in France and know Paris and the history. The underlying issue here is the delicacy of the historical record of the Liberation of Paris and in particular the control over shooting on the streets of the city as demanded by Charles de Gaulle. Various sources suggest that this meant the film couldn’t be in colour because the Nazi flags on Parisian buildings were not allowed to be shown. The monochrome representation was deemed acceptable. The attraction of co-productions is often seen to be the guarantee that the film will be widely screened in both countries but in this case that also became a major problem. American audiences perhaps felt that the American contribution was being diminished in what finally appeared in the film. In France the film was much more successful.
René Clément had a big success in 1946 with La battaile du rail. That film had used a neo-realist approach to present the sabotage organised by large numbers of railway workers and the big plus for me in Is Paris Burning? is the coverage of the large number of resistance fighters in the initial struggle to take over the Prefecture of Police. As far as I could follow the plot (and the accepted history) of the struggle to liberate Paris, there were many different resistance groups. I think there is a communist group as well as the FFI (‘French Forces of the Interior’), the main organised force primed to ‘rise up’ in Paris occupying key buildings (and conveniently wearing FFI armbands in the film). Eventually these groups would be merged with the Free French units equipped by the British and Americans and part of the Allied invasion forces. The Free French units were de Gaulle’s forces and in the film the Gaullist politicians represented by Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Paris are trying to follow orders from London and control events on the ground. My problem in identifying who is who is partly because of Clément’s use of Long Shot compositions, which often means large groups of characters together, and partly the dubbing. The dubbing is heavily criticised by many viewers but I found it was generally pretty good – ironically the Long Shot compositions meant we don’t see so many close-ups and problems of lip-synching but all the same I did fail to recognise some of the well-known French actors I certainly should have recognised.
This is a film of too many cameo performances, especially the American stars who may only appear for a couple of lines. There is a feeling that some of these cameos have required a separate bit of ‘business’ for their moments on screen. Yves Montand has a couple of moments in a tank that work in script terms but don’t need his star presence – as is the case for Simone Signoret’s moment behind the bar in a café. Only Orson Welles and Gert Fröbe have the kind of roles which might be developed in a conventional drama. Pierre Vanek as Major Gallois also features across a lengthy sequence as the envoy sent out from the city to the front line of the American advance in order to contact the American and Free French High Command in the hope of diverting some forces towards Paris.
Overall, I would say the first half of the film works best, leading up to the occupation of the Prefecture of Police and its defence against German forces. I love the fact that the prefecture has a large wine cellar and that the FFI have planned to empty the wine and make Molotov cocktails. I didn’t enjoy the the arrival of Allied troops as much but there is still the emotional rush of a population liberated. There is greater use of archive footage at various points, including images of de Gaulle arriving. Unfortunately much of the archive footage is squashed and I’m surprised more care was not taken. All in all, though, this film is certainly worth watching even at over three hours with the ads. That’s an afternoon out of lockdown!
The film has its second showing on Talking Pictures TV tomorrow (Friday 6 November) at 14.40 in the UK.
This rather neglected Ealing drama is interesting for several reasons even if its poor box office performance might suggest otherwise. It is a relatively early post-war attempt at a resistance film and one which uses the possibility of location shooting in Belgium. In this sense it can be grouped with other British pictures of the period which attempt to deal with issues such as the ‘displaced persons’ in camps after the war and their back stories of wartime experience (e.g. The Captive Heart (1946) Frieda (1947), Portrait from Life (1949) and later The Divided Heart (1954)). This loose group of films focuses on social issues which are the consequences of war. Against the Wind is about action during the war, but the personal struggles and anguish it explores will have effects for a long time afterwards.
As well as the location shooting, Against the Wind, features a European actor who would go on to greater things. Simone Signoret plays an SOE (Special Operations Executive) operative in the first of her four British films. She had worked in bit parts in French cinema under the German Occupation (her part-Jewish background meant she couldn’t get an actor’s permit) and she was only just beginning to establish herself in lead roles in French films after the war. She had worked alongside Françoise Rosay in 1946 on the French feature Back Streets of Paris. Rosay had appeared in two Ealing films in 1944-5 and perhaps she made the connection with the studio possible? Simone Signoret was following Mai Zetterling who played a German young woman in Frieda and again, later, in Portrait from Life as a European actor giving more authenticity to roles in British films made partly in Europe. Simone Simon appeared in a Georges Simenon adaptation, Temptation Harbour in 1947. The other two French-speaking roles in Against the Wind are played by the French-Canadian Paul Dupuis (in UK films since 1943) and the French actor Gisèle Préville, another occasional visitor to UK film productions.
The film’s story came from J. Elder Wills, adapted by Michael Pertwee and final script by T. E. B. Clarke who continued his partnership with Charles Crichton from Hue and Cry (1947). The story enables one of Ealing’s familiar ensemble films. Top billing goes to Robert Beatty who plays a Canadian Catholic priest who has a ‘mission’ in Belgium (in Brussels, so in a predominantly French-speaking city). At the start of the film we see him arriving at the National History Museum in South Kensington on his way to reporting to the Belgian section of SOE where he meets James Robertson Justice as the section chief and a number of both new and experienced agents, principally Max (Jack Warner), Michèle (Signoret), Picquart (Dupuis), Julie (Préville) and Emile (John Slater). The leader of the group is Andrew (Peter Illing) and the explosives expert is Duncan (Gordon Jackson). The film helps to establish what are now the familiar conventions of ‘secret agent’/commando films.
The first half of the narrative involves training and team bonding and the second half is taken up by a major mission which involves all the group members (except Robertson Justice who as ‘head of the training school’ is presumably looking for the next group). The first half probably condemned the film in the US where the reviewers of the New York Times and Variety find it dull, waiting for the action to start. They might be right in that an early action sequence could work to engage the audience, but I found the script interesting in these early scenes. I do wonder if there is any influence of Rossellini’s war films involved here? The most obvious model would be Paisa (1946) with its narratives about the combined work of Allied agents and Italian partisans. Since Paisa didn’t get a UK release until late 1948 this seems unlikely but perhaps the long shots favoured by Rossellini to show partisan action were known. Lionel Banes, or perhaps a second unit cinematographer, employs the long shots in the final action sequences including an attack on a train. This immediately brings to mind La battaille du rail (France 1946) and the later The Train (France-US 1964). Ealing had good co-operation from the Belgian authorities but their action sequences are on a smaller scale. Even so, I think they are impressive. The long shot technique does help to emphasise collective action. We do get to see closer compositions for each of the characters as their individual narratives reach a climax but we are always aware that they are part of a team.
The key aspect of the film is perhaps its relative lack of sentimentality. With two women in the group, it seems obvious that a romance will be explored. There are already emotions and fears in the group about traitors. But the film’s message for the agents is “never let your emotions take over”. “Look after yourself rather than give yourself away. Your allegiance is only to the group and the mission.” Michèle proves she has the temperament for this work with her actions, dealing with the traitor in the group and remaining calm when one of the others is arrested. Simone Signoret shows all her acting ability in this film. She is a star even after only a few key roles.
Why did the film fail at the box office? The general view is that the film was both too late and too early. It was too late as a screening after the war when its collectivist ideology and lack of sentimentality were seemingly not what the austerity audience of the 40s in the UK were looking for and it was too early for a film which might have picked out Michèle as a more conventional heroic figure or one with a more pronounced romance narrative. Michèle is an assertive young woman who teases Duncan by allowing him to think she is inexperienced as an SOE operative when in fact she knows as much as him. She is in some ways a more familiar figure from the 1960s/70s when sexism began to be challenged more directly. Bob Murphy in his book British Cinema and the Second World War (2000) contrasts the film with Odette (1950) and Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) which focus on the real stories of the two best-known women in SOE, Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo. He also notes that Against the Wind‘s realist take on wartime exploits was matched by the rather different approach by Powell and Pressburger on The Small Back Room (1949) and neither film clicked with the public. In retrospect they seem to me to be among the best British films of the period.
Perhaps the best example of the tone that makes Against the Wind so out of time is the observation that of the seven operatives who are parachuted into Belgium, only three survive, though they do complete the mission and rescue their leader held by the Nazis. One of the seven was a traitor who is calmly dispatched, one dies in an accident. The other two die as a result of a failure to complete a task properly. It’s a tough story. The other interesting referent is the lack of equally ‘realistic’ French films about the résistance in the 1940s and ’50s and the irony that Simone Signoret stars in one of the greatest of all résistance films L’armée des ombres (Jean-Pierre Melville 1969). (There were French films about the resistance in the 1940s but they failed to represent the real issues. Against the Wind failed at the French box office because it was seen as unrealistic, whereas in the UK it was arguably seen as too close to representing issues the audience at the time wanted to put to aside.
There are plenty of films that feature train journeys, several where the whole narrative takes place on a train, but the number of films that combine an exciting narrative and involve every aspect of railway operation is very small. The Train not only fulfils those criteria but it is also brilliantly performed, photographed and directed. 1964 is around the peak period of ‘Hollywood in Europe’ when American money helped fund films that were both co-produced with European film industries and used European crews and actors. The film is an adaptation of a French memoir, Le front de l’art by Rose Valland. Wikipedia has a useful entry on the story of this remarkable woman. Franklin Cohen and Frank Davis wrote a screenplay loosely based on Valland’s book and several other writers also contributed. IMDb implies that the film may have had a separate French version, presumably dubbed as the dialogue is almost entirely in English with some German, despite the use of French actors.
The narrative deals with the short period in August 1944 when the German command in Paris realised that the Allies would reach the capital within days. Plans were quickly made to send armaments and men back to Germany by train despite the danger posed by Allied air attacks. Colonel Franz Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) has his own plans to send to Germany the stolen artworks he has been guarding in a Paris Museum. Mlle. Millard (Suzanne Flon) who has catalogued all the works informs the Résistance, pleading that the train must be delayed but not damaged. She emphasises the importance of France’s ‘artistic heritage’. The man who has the skills to organise a complex résistance plan is Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster), the Paris ‘yardmaster’ and effective controller of the line. At first he is reluctant to risk the lives of résistance fighters and undercover workers as well as the ‘civilians’ who may be killed in reprisals. But eventually he is convinced by the argument and creates a highly complex plan that will involve dozens of railway workers across Northern France. I won’t spoil the clever tricks played on the German guards on the train.
This is a long film (133 mins) but the energy levels never drop and the film is spectacular in its use of landscape and railway infrastructure and locos etc. As long as younger audiences can get over the fact that it is in black and white and in the European ‘widescreen’ format of 1.66:1, everyone should enjoy the film – remember though that it is a résistance film and there are many deaths as well as victories for the rail workers. Director John Frankenheimer, though he emerged from US TV, initially as an actor, built a career which focused on large scale action pictures – often in a European setting. He also worked with Burt Lancaster on several films. Lancaster himself was a frequent visitor to Europe, making films in the UK and Italy as well as France. Paul Scofield offers a relatively early example of a Brit chosen to portray a Nazi Colonel with arrogance and an obsession about getting these artworks to Berlin. Elsewhere, however, the film offers us the great Michel Simon as an engine-driver close to retirement, Jeanne Moreau (as entrancing as always) as the proprietor of a ‘station hotel’ and Albert Rémy as Labiche’s right-hand man. The film is photographed by Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz and music is by Michel Jarre.
I saw this film on release in 1964 and though I didn’t remember the details of the plot, I do remember the impact it made on me, sitting in the stalls of Blackpool’s cavernous 3,000 seat Odeon. It would be good to see it on the big screen again. Once you’ve seen it, you should also look out for René Clément’s La Bataille du rail (France 1946) which tells the story of the sabotage of the railways by résistance groups in a neo-realist style soon after the events themselves.
In the clip below, Labiche has managed to sabotage the train and halt it, but an Allied air raid is due and his men must paint the roofs of carriages white to warn the bombers not to destroy the paintings.
Film titling sometimes proves difficult. When this film appeared in 1965 I wasn’t able to see it, but I do remember being baffled by the title. I didn’t know then that Telemark was a region of Norway and I don’t think I recognised that this was a Second World War film. It’s now on BBC iPlayer in the UK in what seems to be roughly the correct ratio and I’m glad I caught up with it as there are several intriguing aspects of the production.
Today many people outside Norway are likely to be aware that Telemark is an important tourist destination in Southern Norway for both sightseeing and walking/ski-ing holidays in the ancient upland region. The town of Rjukan where the film is set has been a tourist destination for a long time but in the 1930s it was best known for its fertiliser production and its hydro-electric power station. Norwegian scientists and engineers produced ‘heavy water’ as part of the power plant’s operation and this became an important part of the development of atomic weapons in World War Two. When the Nazis invaded Norway and took control of the plant in 1940 it became imperative for the Allies to prevent that heavy water production from enabling German military scientists to produce an atomic bomb. Several different acts of sabotage by Norwegian resistance fighters and bombing and commando raids from the UK achieved the Allies’ aims between 1940 and 1943. This film condenses these different military operations into a single sustained action. In this sense, the narrative fits the ‘based on real events’ type of film production. On a trivia note, Telemark was also the home region of Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian fascist who collaborated and became puppet leader of Occupied Norway between 1942 and 1945. ‘Quisling’ later became a general term for any kind of collaborator. There are several collaborator figures in the film, at least one of whom is called a ‘quisling’.
Watching the film in 2019 it now appears in the context of the range of relatively recent local film productions in countries that experienced Occupation, and therefore both ‘Resistance’ and ‘Collaboration’, after 1939. We’ve been interested in these films on this blog, not least because several of them have were major productions attracting large local audiences. The key film here is Max Manus (Norway-Den-Ger 2008) which deals with a group of Norwegian Resistance fighters who sabotage shipping. It’s helpful to use this film as a benchmark to consider how The Heroes of Telemark stands up. The later film is named after the real-life hero of a group of fighters. The central character of The Heroes of Telemark, at least initially, is ‘Knut Strand’ played by Richard Harris. Strand may be based on the historical figure Knut Haukelid, born in New York to Norwegian parents, but back in Norway as an infant from 1914. Haukelid wrote his biography in 1947 and then appeared in a 1948 Norwegian-French film Operation Swallow: The Battle for Heavy Water, which was a major success in France (and presumably Norway). Haukelid played himself in what was a drama-documentary. He was a military hero and, like Max Manus, a member of the ‘Norwegian Independent Company’, Norwegians who trained with the SOE (Special Operations Executive) in Scotland and returned to Norway to undertake sabotage. There was a second Knut in the group, Knut Haugland, born in Rjukan and later part of the Kon-Tiki expedition with Thor Heyerdahl. The two Knuts were involved in separate missions, both of which were ‘rolled up’ into the single narrative of the film. Rather than a recent feature film production, the various sabotage activities became the basis for a six part TV series in 2015 produced by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation as a co-production with Danish and British partners and titled The Saboteurs in the UK where it was shown on More4 and is now available on DVD. Knut Haughland also appears in a UK television documentary film The Real Heroes of Telemark (2003) made by the BBC. I don’t think Haughland was impressed by the 1965 film.
The Heroes of Telemark is one of several bigger budget Second World War films produced in the mid-1960s (following on from the major success of The Guns of Navarone (1961)) and IMDb suggests that in some territories it was blown up from its 35mm ‘Scope (Panavision) print to a 1:2.20 presentation in 70mm (but only Mono sound). It is sometimes described as an ‘epic’ and the Hollywood director Anthony Mann had previously directed El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). The main puzzle about the film is the production company ‘Benton Film Productions’. I can’t find anything about this company which only seems to be mentioned in relation to this film. Did Rank stump up all the money? Did much of it come from Hollywood? The film was made on location in Norway and at Pinewood. Rank distributed it in major European territories and Columbia in North America. With a budget of $US5.6 million the production needed international stars so Harris was joined by Kirk Douglas as a Norwegian University Professor who is persuaded by Harris to join the group. The professor then turns out to be an ‘action hero’ and gradually takes over the lead position. The rest of the cast mainly comprises well-known British character actors with the exception of Michael Redgrave and the Swedish star Ulla Jacobsson. The film was shot by Robert Krasker with music by Malcolm Arnold, so it’s a quality production.
In his book on British Cinema and the Second World War (Continuum 2000), Robert Murphy suggests that Douglas is initially an ‘irritating character’ but that he provides a focus for the narrative drive. I think Murphy makes a reasonable argument. Kirk Douglas as a professor is indeed irritating but his star presence and dynamism can’t be denied. He does pull us through the various scenes and the 120 mins plus speeds by. Having said that, he wears a blue anorak which makes him immediately visible and recognisable, unlike the other saboteurs, and he is older than the others. Richard Harris is relatively subdued by comparison. The Douglas casting seems to me to identify the dilemma for an international ‘epic’ rather than a local feature. Although a film like Max Manus has a central heroic figure, we remember the other characters as well – partly because they were boyhood friends. What is also missing in the 1965 film is any kind of training sequence in the UK. Such sequences often help to introduce the members of the team. Instead, Douglas emerges as the leader, although he has no training at all. The Norwegian Company comprised SOE-trained operatives – the Douglas character should be just the scientific adviser. The script is by Ivan Moffat and Ben Barzman, two experienced Hollywood writers with many credits including well-known large-scale films. Both men were of the left with Moffat from a distinguished British artistic family and Barzman a Canadian who left Hollywood during the HUAC/McCarthy period alongside Joe Losey. He had a long working relationship with Anthony Mann, working on both the El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire. The IMDb credits suggest that the books Skis Against the Atom by Knut Haukelid and But for These Men (1962) by John Drummond provided source material.
The film benefits enormously from being filmed in the real location and the ski chases are spectacular. In 70mm on a big screen I think it would be very entertaining. On TV it is diminished but still worth watching. Telemark is definitely a tourist destination I will consider (assuming the pound sterling will buy any very expensive kroner after Brexit). I realise that I haven’t said anything about Anthony Mann. Mann’s status within film scholarship was based on his early thrillers and particularly his ‘psychological Westerns’ in the 1950s starring James Stewart. In his 1969 book Horizons West, Jim Kitses begins his section on Anthony Mann’s films by arguing that Mann’s ‘personal’ films all focus on an individual who feels compelled to take on insurmountable odds as if he is driven by forces inside himself that he cannot control. Kitses’ second point is that Mann was an early pioneer of location work on Hollywood pictures in the 1940s and that this carried on into his Westerns. It could be argued that the same interest in ‘driven’ heroic characters carried on into the 1960s ‘epics’. Certainly there are elements of Mann’s personal approach in The Heroes of Telemark and these make the film into a successful conventional narrative film. But perhaps something is also lost about the group/community resistance work?
The Silver Fleet is one of the two features produced by The Archers in the 1940s that weren’t directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (who were usually bracketed together as producer/writer/director on all The Archers films). The omission of the two names on the credits has led to this film being slightly overlooked in the general interest shown by cinephiles in The Archers’ work. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality work in the film and I found it a worthwhile addition to The Archers work in the period.
The project followed on from the success of One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), the first official Archers film. The Dutch authorities in exile in the UK were delighted by that film’s portrayal of Dutch resistance in helping a British bomber crew escape from the Netherlands after they were shot down. They requested another film showing resistance featuring Dutch sailors. Powell and Pressburger, with J. Arthur Rank’s money behind them, were keen to comply but they were already setting up the mammoth shoot of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). At this point details get a little murky as Powell’s biography and the biography of Pressburger written by his grandson Kevin Macdonald provide different details. (Powell was well-known for embroidering or simply mis-telling his stories.) The original idea for the film was based on a true story about a U-boat brought to the UK by a Dutch crew. Pressburger fashioned this into a propaganda piece and the project was assigned to the team of Vernon Sewell and Gordon Wellesley. Sewell was well-known to Powell and had worked with him on Foula making The Edge of the World in 1937. He was ‘borrowed’ from the Royal Navy (he was a captain of ‘small ships’) and Powell believed he was perfect for this job. Wellesley was an experienced writer of British films since the early 1930s. He was perhaps best known as the writer of the original stories for Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940) and the Ealing film Sailor’s Three (1940). Pressburger was the main producer on the film with Powell busy shooting Blimp on the adjacent sound stage at Denham. Macdonald suggests that he was unhappy with the finished script and felt that Sewell and Wellesley produced a film that toned down the viciousness of the occupation forces. Macdonald himself argues that the film was “exactly the type of polite, anodyne war film which Emeric had been reacting against”. I think I can understand Pressburger’s reaction but I’m not sure I agree with Macdonald.
The film is set in a fictitious Dutch coastal town where Jaan van Leyden is the owner of a small shipbuilding yard which at the time when the Nazis invade is in the process of building two submarines for the Dutch Navy. The occupation authorities soon summon him and give him an ultimatum. He must complete the building programme and hand over the submarines. His workforce will be forced to carry on (effectively starved into work through food controls). Before he accepts his fate van Leyden goes to collect his son from primary school and through the classroom window he hears the teacher (Kathleen Byron) telling the children the story of Piet Hein, the Dutch admiral who captured the Spanish silver/treasure fleet in the Caribbean in 1628, thus contributing greatly to the war effort of the Dutch in their fight against Spanish hegemony in the Low Countries. Van Leyden decides he must follow Piet Hein’s example. He adopts the name of the hero and having agreed to the German demand, secretly begins to plan a resistance struggle. He tells no one (not even his wife Helene played by Googie Withers) about his new identity and communicates with resistance fighters in his workforce through messages from ‘P.H.’. One consequence of this is that he and his wife and son are branded ‘quislings’ (after the Norwegian collaborator and puppet-state leader for the Nazis).
I think there are three main reasons to rate this film. First the performance by Ralph Richardson and in the smaller roles by Googie Withers, Kathleen Byron and others are very good. I don’t know Richardson’s film work as well as I should. He handles this difficult part with great aplomb, moving from engineer to action man and then into the masquerade of collaborator with ease. Googie Withers is arguably under-used after her success in One of Our Aircraft Is Missing. (Ms Withers’ mother was Dutch-German.) The rest of the cast included some familiar names such as Valentine Dyall as the chief Nazi and also some Dutch Navy personnel and other non-professionals. The performance by Esmond Knight is one of the talking points in the film. Knight, a good friend of Powell’s, had been blinded while serving on HMS Prince of Wales in the sea battle with the Bismark. In The Silver Fleet he plays the local Gestapo chief as an uncouth, callous but also arguably comical character. His visual impairment (he later got back the use of one eye) perhaps explains some of his ‘over’-acting. It didn’t really work for me and I’m usually a fan of his work.
The second important feature of the film is the use of location shooting and carefully constructed studio sets. The creative trio of Erwin Hillier, Alfred Junge and Allan Gray worked together on this film for the first time and would later become the mainstays of The Archers productions in the mid-1940s. Junge had worked extensively in British film production since the 1920s, including work for Hitchcock as well as Powell, but the other two were both more recent recruits. Hillier and Junge were both born in Germany and Gray was born in Austria-Hungary. The locations included docks in Dundee and Cammell Laird’s in Birkenhead and street scenes in King’s Lynn (also used, I think, in One of Our Aircraft is Missing) as the part of the UK most like the Netherlands.
The third interesting feature is the narrative structure. The film begins with an unusual scene on board a submerged submarine with men seemingly comatose. This cuts to Helene reading her husband’s secret diary and we eventually realise that the rest of the film is then one long flashback, starting with van Leyden’s summons to meet his new masters. One of the heavy criticisms of the film is that there is relatively little ‘action’ for a war movie and that the final section, when the audience knows what is going to happen, goes on too long. This wasn’t how I felt watching the narrative unfold. I didn’t mind the lack of action as such, just as I don’t think it matters too much that the Nazi actions against the local population are not as severe as they are in other Dutch resistance narratives. This narrative is all about van Leyden’s actions and the price he pays in order to play the Piet Hein role. The narrative tries to be a stirring propaganda picture and also a presentation of the pain and terror of resistance acts and how they must be faced down – with a stiff upper lip and a display of bonhomie and charm. In this sense, the long final section of the narrative works because Richardson’s performance is so beautifully judged. Richardson is credited as ‘Associate Producer’ on the film and he was, at the same time, working on a short (45 mins) propaganda film for The Archers, The Volunteer (1944), but this time written and directed by Powell and Pressburger.
The Silver Fleet was another screening on Talking Pictures TV.
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):