This Land is Mine
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In 1943, RKO Pictures released This Land Is Mine, directed by Jean Renoir and starring Charles Laughton. The plot centers around Laughton as a cowardly schoolteacher, struggling between his fears and responsibilities as a civilian living in a World War II-occupied town. Although the film's opening titles provide only "Somewhere in Europe" as its location, the setting is obviously Renoir's French homeland. A long-gestating collaborative effort between Renoir and writer Dudley Nichols, This Land Is Mine was, in the director's words, "specifically for Americans, to suggest that day-to-day life in an occupied country was not so easy as some of them thought." The film reunited Maureen O'Hara with Laughton (they appeared together in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1939), this time as his classroom colleague and unrequited love. George Sanders plays O'Hara's betrothed and ultimate turncoat, and Walter Slezak is featured as the ranking German military official. As Laughton's overbearing mother, Una O'Connor effectively rounds out the supporting cast.
Originally titled The Children during its production phase, then changed to Mr. Thomas in honor of its schoolteacher hero, the film was eventually released as This Land Is Mine and was truly a joint effort between Renoir and Nichols. Having worked together on Swamp Water (1941), both men held each other in very high regard and eagerly sought another project in order to continue the collaboration. When signing the contracts with RKO, both men clearly defined their roles in the project; Renoir was to be in charge of the directing, the editing, and the story. Nichols had the authority of the script's dialogue. Curiously, Nichols was unable to write during the day; every word of This Land Is Mine was written at night by lamplight.
Renoir always had Laughton in mind for the lead role; the two first met on the set of Vessel of Wrath - known in the U.S. as The Beachcomber (1938) - and quickly found common ground: Laughton owned a piece of art painted by Renoir's father, Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, titled "The Judgment of Paris." The two maintained their friendship offscreen; Renoir married his second wife at Laughton's home. Having garnered critical acclaim in such films as Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Laughton sunk his teeth into the part of the trembling teacher. Of his character he said, "My role stood for countless thousands of bewildered little people of Europe who have to face a master they hate and cannot understand." An actor of great intensity, Laughton ground the production to a halt one day when, while shooting an emotional scene in a prison cell, he broke off a piece of the set by gripping the bars over the window too roughly. He was unable to continue, explaining to Renoir that, "When Eugene's [Lourie, the production designer] set came away like that, I lost my belief in the whole picture!"
Renoir also had definitive designs as to the casting of the German commandant. As a crucial counter-character to Laughton's role, Renoir wanted his talented friend Erich Von Stroheim for the part. The actor, however, regretfully declined due to other acting commitments, and Walter Slezak was cast. Slezak actually ran into Laughton in Chicago prior to shooting, where they were both catching a train out to California. Slezak had a copy of the script with him that Laughton stayed up all night reading. During a stop in Albuquerque, Laughton--delighted with the writing--wired the head of RKO studios, Charles Koerner, with the following telegraph: "What a tremendous challenge for a tired old ham."
Having costarred in both The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Jamaica Inn (1939), Laughton and Maureen O'Hara were known for their on-screen chemistry; This Land Is Mine was no different. As was her forte, O'Hara transcended seamlessly between varying film genres, whether they were swashbuckling pirate flicks or Westerns with Wayne. Her work in How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947) established her as one of the most beloved actresses of her day. George Sanders, an actor best known for his portrayal of cynical rakes, is cast against type here as a wartime informer. He is best remembered for his Oscar-winning performance in All About Eve (1950) and for his eccentric suicide note that read: "Dear World: I am leaving because I am bored."
This Land Is Mine won an Oscar for sound, the only Academy Award ever bestowed upon a Renoir film. The director himself received an honorary award for film achievement in 1974, a belated gesture to a legendary filmmaker who was responsible for such masterpieces as Grand Illusion (1937) and Rules of the Game (1939). While making This Land Is Mine, Renoir found a possible explanation for the decidedly cool attitude the American film community had toward his films. In an interview he details how the desired effect of boots clomping on hard pavement could not be achieved; the sound department would not allow real stones to be used in the making of the set. Instead, cardboard was installed and the footsteps were dubbed into the audio. Of the situation, Renoir declared, "The incident enabled me to put my finger on the precise difference between French and American taste. The French have a passion for what is natural, while the Americans worship the artificial."
Producer: Jean Renoir, Dudley Nichols
Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols
Production Design: Eugene Lourie
Cinematography: Frank Redman
Costume Design: Renie
Film Editing: Frederic Knudtson
Original Music: Lothar Perl
Principal Cast: Charles Laughton (Albert Lory), Maureen O'Hara (Louise Martin), George Sanders (George Lambert), Walter Slezak (Maj. Erich von Keller), Kent Smith (Paul Martin).
BW-104m. Closed captioning.
By Eleanor Quin