Cast & Crew
As the flag of Nazi Germany is hoisted above the city hall of an occupied French town, a copy of the resistance paper Liberty is slid under the door of the house owned by meek schoolteacher Albert Lory and his overbearing and possessive mother Emma. At his mother's insistence, Albert is about to destroy the paper when he changes his mind and stuffs it into his notebook. On his way to school, Albert meets his next-door neighbor and fellow teacher, Louise Martin, with whom he is secretly in love, and her brother Paul. Louise, who opposes the German occupation, becomes upset when Paul shows a copy of the paper to a German trooper. Upon arriving at school, Louise and Albert learn that the town's collaborating mayor, Henry Manville, has ordered Professor Sorel, the head of the school, to destroy the works of Plato and Aristotle. As Albert instructs his students to tear out the offending pages, Louise vows that one day she will paste them back into the books. When an Allied bombing raid threatens the town, Albert cringes in the school cellar while Louise cheers the raids and leads the students in song. Later, Albert admits to his friend Sorel that he is a coward, and Sorel counsels that he must be strong to instill a respect for liberty and dignity in the children. When a train is sabotaged in the rail yard, Major Von Keller, the German commandant, enlists the aid of yard superintendent George Lambert in finding the saboteurs. Lambert, who is engaged to Louise, is a secret collaborator who denounces "false democratic ideals" in favor of the new German order. Soon after, Paul lobs a bomb at a procession of German troops led by Von Keller and escapes across the rooftops to the Lory yard. In reprisal, Von Keller arrests Sorel and nine other hostages and announces that he will shoot all ten unless the bomber gives himself up. When Louise informs Lambert of Sorel's arrest, she is stunned when her fiancé declares sabotage to be an act of cowardice, and returns his engagement ring. That night, Albert is dining at Louise's house and is about to confess his love when they hear police sirens and Paul sneaks into the house. When the German soldiers arrive to question them, Albert corroborates Paul's story that he has been at the house all night. The next day, Albert awakens to find another copy of Liberty slipped under his door and stuffs it into his pocket. Soon after, some German soldiers arrive to take Albert hostage, and when they find the paper concealed in his pocket, Mrs. Lory becomes hysterical and tells Lambert about Paul's suspicious behavior. Lambert notifies the mayor, who then informs Von Keller. Later that night, Lambert meets Paul at the rail yard to warn him of the danger, but his warning comes too late, as Paul is shot down by German soldiers while attempting to escape. After Paul's death, Albert is released from prison and returns home, wondering why he was the only hostage released. He discovers the answer when he visits the Martin house, and Louise accuses him of betraying Paul. When his mother admits to informing Lambert about Paul, Albert sets out in a rage for the rail yard. Before Albert arrives, however, Von Keller visits Lambert to urge him to attend Paul's funeral and pump Louise for the names of her brother's accomplices. Finally realizing the monstrosity of his deeds, Lambert shoots himself just as Albert bursts into his office. Arrested for Lambert's murder, Albert insists on defending himself in court. When he loses his prepared speech, the normally shy schoolteacher begins to speak extemporaneously about the cowardice of all who collaborate. When the trial is recessed until the following day, Von Keller, realizing the danger presented by Albert's ideas, visits him in his cell and offers to produce a suicide note supposedly written by Lambert if he will abandon his speech. Albert is considering Von Keller's offer when he looks out his cell window and sees his friend Sorel and the other hostages marched in front of a firing squad. When Albert calls to Sorel, his friend smiles and waves before courageously meeting his death. In court the next day, the prosecutor produces Lambert's suicide note, which Albert denounces as a forgery. Declaring that the courtroom is now the only forum available for free speech, Albert eulogizes Paul as a hero and advocates sabotage as the only avenue left for a defeated people. Albert then denounces the collaborators for acting out of self-interest and confesses his love for Louise. When the jury returns a verdict of not guilty, Albert and Louise return to the school, and as his final lesson, Albert begins to read to the students from The Rights of Man . As the Germans come to arrest him, Albert passes the book to Louise, who continues reading.
June Terry Pickrell
Hans Von Morhart
P. J. Kelly
Linda Ann Bieber
Albert S. D'agostino
E. L. Dale
Walter E. Keller
James G. Stewart
John E. Tribby
This Land is Mine
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
This Land is Mine
This Land is Mine on DVD
Playing Germans in some of these movies were newcomers to Hollywood, political and religious refugees from the film industries of Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and France. Noted writers and directors came as well -- Bertolt Brecht, Robert Siodmak. One of the most prestigous émigrés was Jean Renoir, a great talent who fared reasonably well transplanted to Southern California. His Swamp Water (1941) is a superior drama about Florida backwoodsmen, and unrelated to the war. But Renoir's second Hollywood effort This Land is Mine (1943) is superior anti-Nazi propaganda. Working with writer Dudley Nichols and designer Eugène Lourié, Renoir doesn't rely on the depiction of enemy outrages to make his point. The show instead makes excellent use of actor Charles Laughton's ability to elicit strong emotions from the audience. Reuniting Laughton with his The Hunchback of Notre Dame co-star Maureen O'Hara, This Land is Mine dramatizes the fiercely patriotic need of occupied countries to resist their conquerors.
Nichols' story takes place in an unnamed European town, yet the first on-screen image is a very French WW1 memorial seen from multiple angles as the occupation begins. German Major Erich von Keller (Walter Slezak) is determined to avoid strong-arm tactics, so as to minimize local resistance. The Mayor (Thurston Hall) nervously asks everyone to cooperate. Railroad manager George Lambert (George Sanders) cooperates in part because he sympathizes with the German cause. But George's fianceé, schoolteacher Louise Martin (Maureen O'Hara) is very unhappy. Major Keller correctly deduces that the school principal Professor Sorel (Philip Merivale) is the author of anti-Nazi leaflets that are circulating, and has him arrested. Louise's fellow teacher Albert Lory (Charles Laughton) shares her concern. A mama's boy, Albert is so terrified by Allied air raids that he loses the respect of his young students. Albert wants to do the right thing to impress Louise, as he's secretly in love with her -- but his selfishly domineering mother Emma (Una O'Connor) is determined to keep "that woman" away from her boy.
Much to Louise's disgust, Albert meekly cooperates when they are ordered to rip pages out of the children's history books that offend the Germans. She is even more disheartened to learn that her own younger brother Paul (Kent Smith), a railroad switchman, is chummy with the occupying Germans, and even turns in leaflets when he finds them. Paul's activities alienate his girlfriend Julie (Nancy Gates) as well. Louise feels as if she is the town's lone patriot.
The deceptively straightforward This Land is Mine carefully sets up each male character to experience a crisis of conscience. The script's most sophisticated angle is that Walter Slezak's Major Keller is neither an ideologue nor a sadist, as was so often the case in wartime films. He actually suppresses evidence of sabotage as long as possible, in the knowledge that reprisals will only lead to more resistance. The men of the town range from a Quisling to a secret saboteur, but they're all judged through Louise, the Maureen O'Hara figure. She's disillusioned by the way her brother and fiancé calmly accept the occupation, even after the respected Professor Sorel is taken away.
Albert seems the only man Louise is able to influence. The pudgy, innocuous schoolteacher impresses nobody, especially when he cowers in the bomb shelter, as women and children sit calmly to each side. But Professor Sorel's arrest grants him an understanding of the nature of tyranny. Albert cannot control his mother, who goes to City Hall with the notion that the Mayor will have to do what she says because he tried to kiss her back in school. Later, understanding that his mother has caused the death of a true patriot, Albert seeks to atone for her while also striking a propaganda blow against his oppressors. The Germans force the town to try him for a murder he didn't commit, but he uses the defendant's box as a pulpit to deliver a scathing anti-Nazi speech. His courage demonstrates that he's the man truly worthy of Louise, even if he'll have to pay with his life. Major Keller won't find it easy to keep the locals in line, after Albert's sterling example of patriotic defiance.
This Land is Mine is a sterling showcase for Charles Laughton's formidable acting skills. The story is practically built around his talent. Laughton provides a gentle comic relief, playing the milquetoast with his bossy mom (Una O'Connor at her most screechy). He pets Louise's housecat as a substitute for petting her. Part of Albert's conversion shows him coming to the aid of one of his students teased and harassed because he is a Jew. The film's climax consists of three bravura solo speeches. In one of two courtroom scenes Albert interrupts his anti-Nazi argument to proclaim his love for Louise. Albert's now-adoring pupils receive an emotional stunner that will surely inoculate them against whatever ideological poison Major Keller can devise. Nichols, Renoir and Laughton make the speeches count as heartfelt anti-Fascist protest; unlike Charlie Chaplin's oratory at the end of The Great Dictator, this is a more proactive plea for humanity and justice against evil.
The story works on a emotional, theatrical level that neutralizes certain objections: it's altogether clear that Albert Lory's courtroom oratory would be quickly curtailed. The Germans arresting Albert would more likely hustle him from his classroom before he could say a single word. The inoffensive Albert has a special appeal for audiences that can't personally identify with dashing Errol Flynn heroics. For every Alpha Male in the audience there were surely forty nice guys that recognized a bit of Albert's shyness in themselves. Ordinary Joes might fantasize themselves as combat heroes, but Albert's moral martyrdom has the special side benefit of beautiful Louise Martin's undying love and affection. Rewards are where one finds them.
Of all of Hollywood's melodramas about brave resistance to Nazi occupation, Renoir's This Land is Mine has perhaps dated the least. We soon accept the nondescript names and generic "European" settings, which could stand in for any occupation, anywhere. Charles Laughton made several more wartime pictures, even playing an unlikely Admiral opposite Robert Taylor. Maureen O'Hara continued to be one of RKO's most beautiful attractions, mostly in lighter material. Jean Renoir made three more Hollywood features, staying on in America until 1947. His European career didn't resume until 1951's The River, a picture filmed entirely in India.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of This Land is Mine is a good if not outstanding encoding of this fine wartime propaganda picture. Because of its stellar Charles Laughton performance, the movie enjoyed constant TV syndication through the 1950s and '60s. The opening reel has quite a bit of printed-in dirt flecks, which return at reel changes. But the film is intact, reasonably sharp and carries a strong audio track.
By Glenn Erickson
This Land is Mine on DVD
Although Dudley Nichols is listed as the sole writer in onscreen credits, a Hollywood Reporter news item adds that the film was based on an idea by director Jean Renoir. In a modern interview, Renoir stated that he wrote the script with Nichols. Renoir said that he made the film in response to boasts of French exiles, who were safely ensconced in Los Angeles, that if they were living in France, resistance would come naturally to them. Renoir and Nichols had previously worked together on the 1941 Twentieth Century-Fox film Swamp Water (see entry above). Renoir brought his longtime collaborator, production designer Eugene Lourié, from France to design sets for this film. According to a news item in Hollywood Reporter, Leo Bulgakov, who worked as dialogue director and appeared as "Little fat man" in the film, was a former member of the Moscow Art Theater. The film opened in seventy-two theaters in fifty key cities on May 7, 1943. Opening day events were broadcast over radio station WLW in Cincinnati, OH. A news item in Hollywood Reporter notes that the simultaneous showings set an industry record for gross receipts collected on an opening day. The picture won an Academy Award for Best Sound Recording. Charles Laughton reprised his role in a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast on April 24, 1944, co-starring Maureen O'Sullivan.