FROM THE ARCHIVES: This Land is Mine
Reviewed by Leonard Quart
Produced by Jean Renoir and Dudley Nichols; directed by Jean Renoir; screenplay by Dudley Nichols; edited by Frederic Knudtson; cinematography by Frank Redman; art direction by Albert S. D’Agostino and Walter E. Keller; production design by Eugene Lourie; music by Lothar Perl; starring Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara, George Sanders, Walter Slezak, and Kent Smith. DVD, B&W, 104 min., 1943. A Warner Archive release.
When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, Jean Renoir, a man of the left, fled with his wife to the United States. In Hollywood Renoir had difficulty finding projects that suited his talents, which led him to despair about the state of American cinema: “Hollywood is an immense machine, an admirable mechanism without a soul.” Consequently, he made six films in America—none reaching anywhere close to the artistic level of his French classics like Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), Grand Illusion (1937), or Rules of the Game (1939). Of the six, the best arguably was the lyrically realistic The Southerner (1945), a film set in the rural South, depicting a tenant farmer battling against the destructive forces of nature, which gained Renoir an Oscar nomination for Best Director.
The others were lesser, flawed works including This Land is Mine (1943), an openly polemical film about a timid, cowardly, middle-aged schoolteacher, Albert Mory (Charles Laughton), who, by the film’s conclusion, becomes a heroic figure, finding his voice and standing up to the Nazis who have occupied his town, for which he is executed. Renoir made the film “specifically for Americans, to suggest that day-to-day life in an occupied country was not so easy as some of them thought.”
Shot on a limited budget, and mostly on patently artificial studio sets, supposedly representing “somewhere in Europe,” but clearly meant to be Renoir’s France, This Land is Mine emanates the airlessness and lack of social detail of a parable. The film’s mise-en-scène is mostly functional, and most of the characterizations are stereotypical—the film subordinating its formal elements and the creation of character to its political purpose.
Laughton’s performance is one of the film’s few strong points. He’s a schoolteacher who can’t control his class and a man too tongue-tied to express his love for his beautiful, courageous colleague Louise Martin (Maureen O’Hara). Albert is dominated by a dotingly overprotective, complaining, manipulating mother played by Una O’Connor, who crudely engages in scene-stealing histrionics. The film’s core is the transformation of the quivering, ineffectual Albert into a brave, articulate advocate of liberty, who is willing to die for his beliefs. Albert’s radical change of personality is almost impossible to believe but Laughton’s skillful delivery of his final speech makes this sentimentalized shift somewhat more palatable.
Along the way some stock characters are introduced to complicate the narrative. There is Louise’s brother—a handsome, amiable, supposedly apolitical workman, Paul Martin (Kent Smith), his cover for actually being a heroic, risk-taking anti-Nazi Resistance fighter willing to engage in sabotage and the killing of German soldiers, losing his life in the process. The superintendent of the railways, George Lambert (a defanged, dull George Sanders) is a man who believes one’s first duty is to stay alive. He’s sympathetic towards the Nazis and an informer, a weak man who cannot live with the results of his odious betrayals. The Nazi officer in charge of the town, Major Erich von Keller (Walter Slezak), is made a bit less predictable, since he’s clever, cultivated, speaks Latin, and claims he wants to avoid bloodshed and is unwilling to shoot innocents. Because of the sabotage, however, he rounds up as hostages a number of people, who he views as believers in freedom and critical of the occupation, and has them shot. Von Keller turns out to be just another Nazi barbarian, albeit one with a smoother, less demonic surface. All of these characters, as well as the film’s defiantly anti-Nazi but soporific, tearful heroine, O’Hara’s Louise, are one-dimensional figures lacking any hint of complexity or interiority.
What’s of interest in the film is what Renoir and his gifted scriptwriter Dudley Nichols (e.g., The Informer, Bringing Up Baby, Stagecoach) were trying to say about the conquest of Europe by the Nazis. The thrust of their thesis is that German military power was not sufficient to occupy most of Europe; it needed the submission of the local populations to achieve their absolute control. The people submitted because they calculated that by doing so they could limit the level of tyrannical repression and preserve some order. In other situations, naked self-interest and opportunism were the prime motivation for supporting the occupation. In This Land is Mine, Renoir clearly provided a direct attack on Marshal Pétain’s Vichy regime—the town’s craven mayor exemplifying the kind of Vichy collaborationist who made money out of the Nazi occupation.
On trial, Albert’s final speech offers an articulate direct attack on the evil new order that lives on “lies.” He praises both armed resistance (“It will increase our misery, but shorten our slavery”), and the working class who suffers most under Nazi rule. He goes on to condemn the middle and political class for their complacency and self-interest, stirring words to which the townspeople listen in rapt attention. The jury declares him not guilty, and that gives an utterly self-confident Albert a chance for one more speech before his class. They are now gripped by every word coming out of Albert’s mouth, as he reads from the Declaration of the Rights of Man that “all men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”
This Land is Mine is a static, speechifying film conveying some unexceptional if affecting truths about the state of occupied Europe. It’s probably unfair to compare it with Renoir’s brilliant humanistic Thirties films, which conveyed a complex sensitivity to the inherent ironies and inequality of the French class structure, and the plight of the working class.
Renoir was unsuited for Hollywood and its production system. As Daryl Zanuck said: “Renoir has a lot of talent, but he isn’t one of us.”
Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books, including the fourth edition of American Film and Society Since 1945 (Praeger).
To purchase This Land is Mine, click here.
Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 3