Saturday, November 16, 2013

This Land Is Mine

A search of the blog, as well as a search of that portion of my hard drive where I save my blog posts, claims that I have never done a post about This Land Is Mine before. It's airing tomorrow morning at 6:15 AM on TCM.

The setting is a village somewhere in France, or at least the RKO backlot dressed up to look like Hollywood's conception of bucolic France. The movie was released in 1943, a date which means World War II, and an occupied France. Surely enough, this town is occupied by the Nazis, represented by Major von Keller (Walter Slezak, again providing a suitably evil Nazi as he did in Lifeboat). Albert Lory (Charles Laughton), meanwhile, is one of the schoolteachers in the village. He just wants to survive by making as few waves as possible. Not that he wants to collaborate with the Nazis; he just doesn't want to run afoul of them either. In fact, Albert is so meek that he still lives with his overbearing mother Emma (Una O'Connor). That, and he can't bring himself to disclose his feelings for fellow teacher, and neighbor Louise Martin (Maureen O'Hara). In some ways, though, that's not a bad thing, as she's already engaged to George Lambert (George Sanders), who is the superinendent at the rail yard.

Of course, you know all this is going to change thanks to the Nazi occupation. Louise's brother Paul (Kent Smith) is part of the Resistance, but, more importantly for Albert, Nazi propaganda is coming to the school. Lory would rather teach the truth, although not at the cost of his life; Louise, for her part, is sympathetic enough to the Resistance that she's going to rebel in passive ways where her brother is going to resist in more active ways.

It's that active resistance that's going to change everybody and get Albert to wake up from his torpor and realize how evil the Nazis are and that, my goodness, every right-thinking person is supposed to fight them everywhere and no matter the cost. More specifically, there's an act of sabotage at the railyards. It's at this point we learn that Lambert is, in fact, a collaborator! Paul, for his part, has been engaging in some of that sabotage, and when the Nazis come after him, he asks Louise and Albert for help. Albert lies ot the Nazis to protect Paul, his first major act of resistance.

Albert is going to get more chances to resist the Nazis, as his character transforms from meek to either foolhardy or somebody who realizes his previous life was pointless. It culminates in Albert being wrongly accused of murdering Lambert, and being put on what was always going to be a show trial anyway for it. Since Albert knows it's a show trial and there's no chance of being found not guilty, he can tell off the Nazis for what they really are. (I don't think it's giving too much away, since you know a movie like this has to have a positive message for the American audience for which this is intended, and the Nazis are always going to be portrayed in the worst possible manner.)

Charles Laughton is, as always, exceptional. I wouldn't say he steals every scene he's in since he's the star of the movie, but he certainly makes every scene his own, outshining the other cast members. That's not to say they're not good; it's just that when you're up against somebody like a Charles Laughton, it takes a lot to shine as much as he does. Clark Gable was able to do it in Mutiny on the Bounty; Maureen O'Hara and the rest instead provide a good atmosphere for Laughton to show his chops. And to be fair to them, they're all quite good at it. If the movie has any flaws, it's the fact that, being set in World War II and made at the time, it's kind of constrained in how it can present the unbelievably virtuous Resistance and preternaturally wicked Nazis. Somebody like Catherine Deneuve in The Last Metro is probably a more realistic portrayal of having to deal with Nazis.

This Land Is Mine does seem to be available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection.

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