Meek and weak Charles Laughton becomes a man and a fighter for freedom in this Jean Renoir WWII movie.
Time for another Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, in which two blogger friends (me and Mike’s Take on the Movies) pick films for the other to watch & review once a month.
I love movies with messages like This Land is Mine, themes of personal development, strength against odds and the importance of free expression. Threats to freedom of speech are always present regardless of era; speech codes, approved language, proper conduct rules, enforced conformity and political correctness are all versions of the same bullying impulse to shut down whatever opinion is undesirable to whoever happens to be in power. In this movie it’s the Nazis, who roll in relatively peacefully to occupy some delightful little fictional town, “somewhere in Europe.” At first they are welcomed as populist and progressive forces that will reshape society, establish equality by destroying capitalism, and teach children the proper curriculum. As we know of Nazi evil, and as history repeatedly shows, what begins as an instruction to teachers to rip dangerous pages out of books, too easily escalates to executing those with dangerous thoughts, and that’s what unfolds in this story.
As soon as the Nazis set foot in town, there is a resistance movement. Someone begins distributing inspirational flyers about restoring LIBERTY, which outrages the Nazis and also, and this is sad to see, disturbs many of the locals who see it as unnecessary trouble-making. Charles Laughton and his mother Una O’Connor both shake their heads at the ridiculous message and decide to burn the paper. But something stops Laughton. He beats out the flame, lingers on the words for a bit, and keeps the flyer. The seed is planted in his head but some time has to pass before he can act on it, because he’s a good man but crushed completely under his mother’s thumb. O’Connor is possessive, controlling, and disapproving of any move toward independence (and toward women), and as a result Laughton is a fully grown man with a spine of jello and zero self-respect, despite being a good teacher. He admits to being a coward and so we hardly expect him to act on his unrequited love for his colleague Maureen O’Hara. O’Hara’s fiance George Sanders appreciates what the Nazis can do for him and his railroad enough to overlook whatever he dislikes in their methods. O’Hara’s brother Kent Smith turns out to be the chief resistance figure, and when he throws a bomb at the Nazis, the act turns the town and many of these relationships upside down, and teaches them all about courage.
Laughton is wonderful to watch as he goes from being an awkward introvert and frantically doting on his perfectly capable mother to standing straighter and telling her off when he realizes she’s devastated his life and sold out a fine person to secure his safety. He becomes a firm and brave hero, secure in his choices and desperate to share what he’s learned before the Nazis snuff him out. The last act of the movie is mostly his, as he witnesses tragedy, defends himself in court, comes to realize that others are weaker and more cowardly than him, publicly admits his feelings for O’Hara, and inspires the whole town to grow a spine, stand as one and continue the fight. But even in Laughton’s big moments, director Jean Renoir chooses to focus on the faces of the people listening, which beautifully shows the impact of Laughton’s words, the shame felt by some and admiration felt by others. He’s developed into a man from that one tempting and dangerous word on the flyer–LIBERTY–added to the lesson learned from an executed professor (Philip Merivale), about heroism and bravery being as simple as living your life admirably, especially when children are always watching and learning from your example.
Laughton also pops in several of his signature little touches, whether he’s recoiling when he stumbles across a dead body, comforting a bullied student, petting a cat, or wavering between doing the right thing and the easy thing to get out of prison (if by easy you mean selling your soul to your captors). He makes a great bit out of smoking his first cigarette, and later in prison better handles his second, very proud of himself for hacking up a bit less of a lung that time.
Maureen O’Hara is wonderful too, as a compassionate, strong, uncompromising woman who speaks her mind and knows the school is the battleground for defending ideas and instilling in the children the proper response to oppression. When Laughton cowers during an air raid, she distracts the kids who are making fun of him by getting everyone to sing. After some misunderstandings and losses she falls in love with Laughton. Kent Smith gets a nice part as a dashing hero whose light and jolly manner and big smile cover his serious concerns and intentions. George Sanders shows his usual skill in making the sinister somehow sympathetic and his traitorous acts seem tragic. Sanders’ final scene of pure guilt is touching and memorable, a great combination of the director’s use of imagery and the actor’s understated approach.
This Land is Mine is a rewarding movie on a couple levels. It’s a well done wartime story, but take away the specific circumstances of the WWII plot and the essential message is about the value of an individual, and it’s a great reminder that you can’t just wait to speak up for freedom when it’s almost gone and it means putting your life on the line, nor do you stop speaking up when things have gone that far.