Blatant anti-Nazi propaganda film is strangely affecting due to Dudley Nichol’s intricate plot machinations, his often moving dialogue, and Jean Renoir’s mature direction which seemed to push the actors into transcending what could easily have been straightforward, morally conflicted characters in an occupied township during WWII.
Although set ‘somewhere in Europe’ where everyone speaks swell American English and the signage is equally Anglo, This Land is Mine is a moral tale where cowards can find inner confidence and fight against tyranny, eroding the power of occupiers, and in the words of hero / ex-coward Albery Lory (Charles Laughton), narrow the period of misery until a people are free again to determine their own fate.
Lory’s world is turned upside down when his simple life of teaching a rowdy class, harboring feelings for hot colleague Louise Martin (Maureen O’Hara), and devoting the rest of his day to an overbearing mother (Una O’Connor) are upset by the actions of a saboteur who takes Lory into his confidence. Lory is a closet hero – he just can’t burn the secret newsletters slipped under his front door bearing the header “Liberty” – but the mounting injustices start to really irk, particularly when the school’s Jewish principal is arrested for a recent train derailment. Lory also puts a stop to the class’s anti-Semitic harassment of the principal’s son, and eventually expresses his devotion towards Louise when she breaks off her long-running engagement with town industrialist George Lambert (George Sanders).
When a saboteur is killed, Lory inadvertently becomes a pariah, and later a murder suspect, and just as he’s given a way out of a dire situation, he realizes there’s a high moral calling which he can’t deny, and virtually sacrifices himself to martial other closet heroes into the town’s anti-Nazi movement.
Nichols and Renoir laid out some very unique boundaries in their drama: the term “Nazi” is never uttered, nor are there heavy swastika banners filling the screen; the villain is clearly branded German. Unlike similar propaganda efforts such as Uncertain Glory (1944), Mine puts a nation on trial rather than a regime, with leader Major Erich von Keller (Walter Slezak) representing the articulate, cultured, and manipulative character of Germans at large, be they in Europe or the United States. (Slezak would create a similarly resourceful Nazi character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat a year later.)
It’s a stance not unlike the anti-Japanese films of the period, but von Keller isn’t a shouting, death-happy Hun: early in the film Nichols shows him to be more of a bureaucrat who just wants to keep things peaceful; he fully champions the art of collaboration, and curries relationships with town officials and industrialists to ensure there’s minimal conflict. And yet he also loathes Jews, which the script doesn’t hide, but instead of spouting anti-Semitic vitriol, von Keller regards them as more annoying than generic saboteurs.
Instead of threatening locals, he seeks out and rewards collaborators, and while Lory stews in his jail cell, presents arguments and options designed to sway Lory to his side by thinking of his life. Those who’ve been corrupted – the Mayor, the butcher and (yup) the baker – are singled out by Lory in its lengthy, literate, and brilliantly contrived argument to the jury, and whether he’s acquitted or convicted, he’s a dead man for speaking freely in a forum that’s deliberately been left untouched by the Nazis.
Mine is pure propaganda, but it’s also damn effective drama because audiences will bond with the characters and see the Germans as Generic Oppressors, making the film relevant to any country occupied and brutalized by an invading force. Aside from Nichols’ excellent (if not slightly verbose) script, there’s the casting against type: Sanders plays a nervous, virtually sycophantic collaborationist that goes against his usual screen personal of an arrogant, over-confident shit; bland Kent Smith is effective as Louise’s supposedly amoral brother; Una O’Connor (The Invisible Man) dials down her standard histrionics and manages to render Lory’s doting mother into a sympathetic monster; and Laughton is wonderful to watch, slowly evolving from an awkward, unsociable teacher to a man high on pride and self-sacrifice.
Better-known for playing pompous historical figures like Capt. William Bligh (Mutiny on the Bounty [M]) or the title role in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Laughton gives Lory nuances, quirks, and physical movements to enrich the character’s dramatic arc, and by the end it’s not impossible to believe a beauty like Louise would fall for a principled, decent man with less-than movie star looks. Laughton’s court speech is beautifully delivered, and turns what’s basically indulgent scriptorial hectoring into a moving call to arms because Laughton strips away any piousness from Nichols’ words by showing Lory as a man as common as the townspeople in court.
The scene is also a clever device in ratcheting up audience hopes, because when he’s deemed innocent and set free, we know it’s a matter of time before the Nazis will arrest him and eventually place him in front of the same firing squad as his principal. The film’s finale is surprisingly gut-wrenching, because his final act before leaving the school is to read sections from a banned book he chose to save from the Nazi fires, and like the characters in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, passed on the tools of free thought verbally, imprinting concepts on the minds of the once-disrespectful but now still and mournful children. Once he’s arrested, Louise continues to read, closing the film on a mix of tragedy and hope. It’s schmaltzy, manipulative, and melodramatic, but the finale is the capper to a well-crafted film which outclasses the otherwise black & white propaganda films cranked out by Hollywood.
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Unfortunately for fans of Renoir, the cast, and RKO, the film has yet to be released (at least, at the time of this review) on DVD, but there is a Spanish Region 2 release that features an adequate transfer from an adequate print, with optional Spanish and English dub tracks.
Renoir’s fully-credited films during his American period include Swamp Water [M] (1941), This Land is Mine (1943), The Southerner [M] (1945), Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), and The Woman on the Beach (1947), after which he made a series of dreamy Technicolor productions in Europe, beginning with The River (1951).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan