THIS LAND IS MINE, director Jean Renoir’s second Hollywood film after fleeing France for America during WW2 is a uncommonly sober rallying cry for resistance, still quite stirring today: beautifully written, directed and acted. Surrender your soul to tyranny and try to live with yourself ? Do what conscience dictates and keep your honor even if means risking your life?
“Somewhere in Europe…” The country isn’t specified, but you could toss a dart at a map of the continent in 1943 and it would land in a place like the occupied town of this story. Ungainly, painfully shy schoolmaster ‘Albert Lory’ (Charles Laughton) pines for his kind and lovely neighbor, fellow teacher ‘Louise Martin’ (Maureen O’Hara), but she’s engaged to rail yard supervisor ‘George Lambert’ (George Sanders). Louise bridles at the town’s German occupiers, but George thinks its wisest to work with jovial, confident and persuasive enemy commandant ‘Maj. Erich von Keller’ (Walter Slezak), who seems to have all the cards. Albert, dominated by his needy mama, and afraid of any kind of confrontation, lives with ridicule as his lot, but Louise’s brother ‘Paul’ (Kent Smith), who works at the rail yard under his friend George, is a secret saboteur. Liberation, if it’s coming, is a long way off. Fateful choices await them all.
Although Dudley Nichols is listed onscreen as the sole writer, Renoir helped, and the idea was his, a response to fellow French exiles, safe in Los Angeles, boasting that if they were still in France, fighting the occupation would come naturally to them. He also wrote it, as he put it “specifically for Americans, to suggest that day-to-day life in an occupied country was not so easy as some of them thought.” Nichols and the director had worked together on 1941s excellent Americana piece Swamp Water.
It’s a terrific script, refreshingly intelligent among the normally strident war films during that time, presenting a thoughtful back & forth between viewpoints, unafraid enough of the rightness of its convictions to let the other side–the fearful or comfortable civilian collaborators and the coldly practical, ideologically certain enemy officer—have arguments that actually sound like what people would say and believe. They have the desired effect (for us–then the Allies, today their descendants) of enriching the humane and heroic responses, resolutions and actions of the patriots and resisters.
The cast deliver top-rate performances. Laughton’s dismissed and frightened mouse who discovers his inner lion—borne out in some quietly wonderful speeches in the last act–gives him his best role of the 40s, the finest since his likewise pitiable Quasimodo from The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. O’Hara, 22, in her third picture with friend and mentor Laughton, is forceful and passionate, her obvious attractiveness used without making a fuss over it. Slezak, as he would do so superbly in the following year’s Lifeboat, makes the calm and erudite enemy officer not a stock lampoon villain (say Raymond Massey in Desperate Journey) but by virtue of his wit a more viably dangerous foe. Una O’Connor has a showy but honest field day as Laughton’s suffocating mother. While Laughton garnered the most praise, Sanders secondary role is also noteworthy: dropping his usual sly disdain for resignation, worry and then a telling display of anguish, it’s one of his most surprisingly affecting performances.
“After all, what is the United States? A charming cocktail of Irish and Jews. Very spectacular; but, very childish. And England? A few old ladies wearing their grandfathers’ leather britches.”
Ranking 77th at the boxoffice in its year, with a gross of $4,000,000, an Oscar winner for Best Sound, it runs 103 minutes, with Philip Merivale, Thurston Hall, George Coulouris, Nancy Gates, Trevor Bardette. Later famous for Hogan’s Heroes, 33-year-old John Banner has a bit: the Austrian Jewish exile plays a German guard, one of seven Nazi roles he took in 1943. *
* Regarding the award-taking Sound, make-believe and ‘Allied’ characteristics: Renoir was irked by how the desired effect of marching boots clomping on streets could not be achieved. RKO’s sound department wouldn’t allow real stones to be used in the making of the set, so cardboard was installed and the boot thumps were dubbed in. He mused “The incident enabled me to put my finger on the precise difference between French and American taste. The French have a passion for what is natural, while the Americans worship the artificial.” Well, enough of us, apparently, given our politicians.
Laughton: “My role stood for countless thousands of bewildered little people of Europe who have to face a master they hate and cannot understand.”
Tragically, though set and made in 1943, This Land Is Mine remains timely, given the present obvious and ominous resurgence of hypernationalism, intolerance and cruelty masked as patriotism. When will you have had enough?
“We must stop saying that sabotage is wrong, that it doesn’t pay. It does pay! It makes us suffer, starve, and die. But, though it increases our misery, it will shorten our slavery.”