February 11, 2018

This Land Is Mine (1943)
Grade: 77/100

Director: Jean Renoir
Stars: Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Hara, George Sanders

What it's about. Set in Nazi-occupied France. Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara are schoolteachers at the local grade school. Laughton is a portly nebbish controlled by his shrewish elderly mother (Una O'Connor). He is secretly in love with O'Hara, a fiery hottie half his age. Both report to headmaster Philip Merivale, a man of unquestioned integrity.

The Nazis have turned the political and economic leaders of their village into their Quislings, respectively represented by mayor Thurston Hall and railyard owner George Sanders. Sanders is engaged to O'Hara, who has become disillusioned with him, as well as her brother Kent Smith, since both are friendly to the Germans. Smith is also snubbed by girlfriend Nancy Gates, who like O'Hara is unaware that Smith is secretly working with the Resistance against the occupiers.

How others will see it. This Land Is Mine mostly passed unnoticed in 1943. It was not a box office hit, and aside from an Oscar in the technical category of Best Sound, was overlooked by contemporary critics.

Director Jean Renoir, the son of a famous impressionist painter, has since become widely praised for his body of work, but mostly for movies made during the 1930s in France, especially The Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game. This Land Is Mine, when it is considered at all by critics, is regarded as interesting but overripe propaganda.

Nonetheless, classic movie fans who have actually watched the movie hold it in better regard. At imdb.com, it has a fairly high user rating of 7.6 out of 10, which rises to 8.0 among women over 45. There is thus a discrepancy between critics, who have become cynical from seeing too many anti-Nazi propaganda films, and the classic movie lover, who overlooks the formula and enjoys the craft.

How I felt about it. Of course This Land Is Mine is propaganda. But so is Chaplin's The Great Dictator, and for that matter, Casablanca, which is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest films of all time.

This Land Is Mine doesn't approach such heights, but it does demonstrate that propaganda movies can be very good, and not only if you happen to agree with the viewpoint expressed. Most people, myself included, have no admiration for the Nazis, but that doesn't make, for example, Edge of Darkness into a good movie. It's not quite enough that the production believe in the propaganda. They also must buy into the production itself.

That is, This Land Is Mine has much more going for it than the fact that it is set in Nazi-occupied France, and its director, Jean Renoir, is a French director who escaped the Nazi occupation. Thus, Renoir must have been delighted when RKO Radio green-lighted the movie, and its screenplay by one Hollywood's best writers, Dudley Nichols (Bringing Up Baby, Stagecoach).

The film's stock continued to rise when it cast three of the British Isles best exports as the leads: Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Hara, and George Sanders. (Sanders was admittedly born in Russia, but had English parents and grew up in London). The movie also benefits from the cantankerous performance by Una O'Connor, who must have served as the prototype for "The Beverly Hillbillies" Granny.

The propaganda can be ladled on a bit much. The soon-to-be-executed Professor Sorel waves to the imprisoned Charles Laughton as cheerfully as if he had instead spotted his mistress arriving at the door of a pre-arranged rendezvous. Laughton, who behaves as if he is afraid of his own shadow for most of the movie, suddenly transforms into George C. Scott standing before the oversized U.S. flag at the beginning of Patton, when he knows this will lead to his execution, and possibly that of his meddlesome mother as well. It might even get would-be girlfriend Maureen O'Hara into greater trouble.

Nonetheless, This Land Is Mine is way better than Edge of Darkness. The director and screenplay are responsible for most of the difference, and it helps that the Nazis act like Nazis, even if the villagers too often act like Resistance heroes. Kent Smith has it right: befriend them when the Nazis around, and commit sabotage when they are absent. Maureen O'Hara gets it wrong: in-your-face defiance of the Nazis will simply get you arrested and shot. She avoids such a fate only because the screenplay places a force field of protection around her that would never exist during a Nazi occupation, except in a movie.