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Hedayat Matin Daftari
French POW Dumaine is sequestered near the castle of a prideful Prussian nobleman, Count Reinmacher, who lives for the day that his four sons will march triumphantly into Paris. Axelle, the daughter of one of the sons, makes periodic goodwill visits to the prison compound, and by-and-by she falls in love with Dumaine.
C. Aubrey Smith sends his four sons off to the Great War, with speeches of how great it is to be German and the Kaiser and the family's glorious history. By 1918, three of them are dead. Only Alexander Kirkland, who's engaged to Leila Hyams is still alive and at the front. Meanwhile, next to Smith's castle, a prisoner-of-war camp lies. Its commandant is Ralph Bellamy, a martinet whose right side has been blown away. He keeps putting the moves on Miss Hyams.
Warner Baxter is a French sergeant who comes to the POW camp. Because he is an electrical engineer, he is put to work wiring the castle. He and Miss Hyams fall in love. Then, one day, home comes Kirkland on leave.
Visually this is an amazing movie, another great collaboration between director William K. Howard and James Wong Howe. The opening sequence, all night and fog, is brilliant and stark. Throughout the movie, other sequences approach this, particularly the one of the prisoners who have escaped and been recaptured, waiting to be executed.
the story is not so amazing, sheer melodramatic, post-All-Quiet-on-the-Western-Front stuff, with Kirkland as the aesthete trapped in a military tradition in a hopeless war, and Warner Baxter as... well, he's the romantic lead. Even worse is the dialogue by S.N. Behrman. It might have worked on paper in the Pierre Benoît novel the movie is derived from. In the mouths of the actors it sounds very stiff.
And yet...so much of it looks in broad outline like LA GRANDE ILLUSION that I will assert that Renoir and Spaak plundered the book for that great film, and perhaps the movie. Erich von Stroheim would be working for Fox the year after this came out, and his role in Renoir's film -- which was originally much shorter, stretched out at von Stroheim's request and writing, looks like a merging of the two German officers.
This is not a great film, but the visuals keep it constantly fascinating. And the possibility of its linkage to a great masterpiece adds an allure to it.
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