Hollywood's Treatment of French Schizophrenia
by Norman Berdichevsky (Aug 2006)
Hollywood’s ever more leftward drift has gone far beyond JFK, a film that not just cast doubt, but spread malicious rumor and innuendo accusing the CIA and Vice President Johnson of complicity in the murder of President Kennedy and casting both the wretched and delusional assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and the unscrupulous New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison in a sympathetic light. It has produced Gangs of New York, a totally distorted account of the 1863 Draft Riots that outdoes Nazi and Soviet propaganda in its depiction of every aspect of American society and government as venal, corrupt and racist. It has now produced Syriana, in which
It is hard for the average movie-goer under the age of 50 unless he or she is a buff of older films from the 1940s to conceive of a time when Hollywood responded to war and international crises with patriotic fervor and even took initiatives to explain complicated and difficult foreign policy dilemmas for the American government, yet this is indeed the background. to
These films come to mind immediately in the wake of the recent tensions between the
Apart from the mega-success of Casablanca (1942) , set in Morocco are the “also-rans,” To Have and To Have Not (1944); starring Lauren Bacall in her famous debut and unforgettable line - “just whistle”) and Passage to Marseilles (1944), both of which take place in the French Caribbean possession of Martinique and the French Penal Colony on Devil’s Island (where Dreyfus was imprisoned). In
Another film, Cross of Lorraine (1943), the symbol of General de Gaulle’s Free French movement, deals with inter-French tensions and conflicts that played such an important role in 1939-42 when the American State Department recognized the Fascist Vichy regime and had to follow a policy of “correct relations” ignoring General de Gaulle, that sowed much confusion among the American public..
In all these films, the French are portrayed as a nation betrayed by its own leaders and opportunistic officials all too willing to collaborate with the Nazis. There is a small band of “Free French” who are presented as brave but also inept, disorganized and devoid of leadership. In the end, these Frenchmen are finally inspired to fight by the heroic Humphrey Bogart.
In Passage to Marseilles, Bogart, a French reporter, speaks out against appeasement and is framed by the authorities as a “trouble-maker” likely to offend Nazi Germany. He is sent to
After escaping from
His words so shame the doubters that they kiss him on the cheek with the exclamation that “We are so glad you are on our side” (To Have and Have Not) and Claude Raines portraying the Police Commissioner decides to “toss a bottle of
In all the films, one hears the repeated subliminal melody of the Marseillaise. In Rick’s
Claude Rains plays the Vichy French police official “Captain Louis Renault” who provides protection for Rick’s café in return for a share of the illegal gambling profits. This character at first typifies the cynical, corrupt and totally pragmatic of all those Frenchmen who chose some form of collaboration with the Germans in order to survive. His devotion to “duty” is immortalized in the lines “I am making out the report now. We haven’t quite decided if he committed suicide or died trying to escape”; his feigned sense of shock in having to close down the Café, “I am shocked - shocked - to find gambling is going on here”, only to be told by the croupier “Your winnings, sir”; his immortal reply to Rick who is holding a gun pointed at his heart, “That is my least vulnerable spot”; and his frank admission “I have no conviction, if that’s what you mean. I blow with the wind, and the prevailing wind happens to be from
A lesser known film, The Cross of Lorraine (1943), takes place in a prisoner of war camp where French soldiers are interned. Peter Lorre plays a sadistic and corrupt German prison guard. Hume Cronyn plays a French prisoner more than ready to work for the Germans in order to win extra rations of food and other favors. The other stars, Jean-Pierre Aumont and Gene Kelly, are two close friends who differ in their view of the necessity of fighting. They are depressed to hear the prisoners relate that their countrymen at home, especially the “wise ones”, are collaborating. The muffled strains of the Marseillaise are continually repeated in this film until the very end. Sir Cedric Hardwicke, voicing dissent, plays a French priest who admonishes the prisoners that to resist and die fighting is better than to serve the Germans and thereby repudiate their “divine origin”.
In this film, there are no American characters but the news alone that the Americans have landed in French North Africa and are fighting there with the Free French under “The Cross of Lorraine” (General de Gaulle’s forces) is enough to bring elation to all the villagers where the two men have found refuge after escaping from prison. When spending the night at the home of an ordinary family, they realize how all the simple joys of life will be eliminated in the Nazi New Order and exult in the knowledge that they must fight to make that kind of world impossible.
Jean-Pierre Aumont’s character is also plagued by the realization that before the war he had preferred the policies of appeasement and, therefore, he owes a debt to his friend Victor and those like him who saw the dangers of not fighting then. “They wanted to fight and we didn’t. We got all the Victors into this.” Even the character played by Gene Kelly - a traumatized man, broken by Nazi torture, who vows never to risk his life or even comfort for anything - is shamed by a teenage boy in the Resistance. The two friends and boy exult that “It’s war again! It’s to bring happiness again to millions of homes that we fight.” At the end, the entire village population fights with rocks and bare fists against the Germans, burning their own homes in a Russian-like scorched-earth policy rather than submit. The film ends with the Cross of Lorraine fluttering across the screen to the exultant strains of the Marseillaise. Rarely has the cinema portrayed such an out-of-character event for a nation.
For all its faults,
This was an important goal because the
Together with his Foreign Minister Pierre Laval, Petain encouraged French volunteers to work in Germany, called for the death penalty as punishment for French soldiers serving in “foreign armies” with the British, publicly expressed wishes for a German victory, introduced anti-Semitic legislation, participated in the deportation of foreign and French Jews to concentration camps, allowed Germany to use French military and naval bases, permitted French “volunteer” pilots to join the Luftwaffe, arrested pre-war French politicians, and ordered military forces in Syria and North Africa to resist an Allied occupation. In the battle for
What is perhaps most fascinating about these films is that they exploited a theme that the American public found easy to relate to then and certainly today as well - an inept France, led by corrupt politicians, which is twice rescued by American guts, heroism, and initiative. In these films, the American hero is uncomfortable with the French fondness for glory, finesse, fashion, genteel style, exaggerated formalities, elaborate uniforms and the epicurean delights of fine cuisine.
A recent cinematic contrast of the cultural divide between
In all the war films, there is a heroic struggle often between an apathetic and defeatist French majority willing to compromise to achieve “peace” at any price and those who are aware that such a view diminishes and defames all that they believed in as
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