Jean Renoir’s This Land is Mine is a fairly unmemorable film with a nuanced and wonderful turn by Charles Laughton at its heart. Taking place in a small French town during the Nazi Occupation during WWII, Laughton plays a timid, cowardly schoolteacher and mother’s boy who becomes split between collaboration with the Nazis and resistance. The film’s conscience at its center is a fellow teacher played by Maureen O’Hara with whom Laughton’s character has a deep crush for. While her fiancée collaborates with their Nazi oppressors, her brother is a dashing and charismatic figure in the Resistance.
Renoir wrings as much pathos and meaning out of this story as possible culminating in the film’s climactic trial. Through a series of misunderstandings and betrayals, our mild-mannered protagonist is put on trial for murder and delivers a blustery speech on freedom, democracy, and fighting for liberty. The film, made in the midst of World War II, acts as a propaganda piece for not just freedom in France but calls on its citizens to take part in sabotage and other such heroic acts of rebellion against the Nazis.
The film comes from an admirable place and thus is not so easily dismissible. However, this is certainly lesser Renoir in that there is little of the humanist value amidst the war that so characterizes much of his best work. It’s Charles Laughton’s performance that struck the biggest chord as the cowardly schoolteacher as he slowly comes to realize his own importance in simple acts of defiance. A pleasant tale of the cowardly lion finding his courage amongst the most despicable times in human history but I’ve always been reticent over the hyperbolic arm-swinging that comes from works such as these. There are certainly thrilling moments scattered throughout and some truly great moral dilemmas such as the with the fiancée character who must face up to his role in the fate of one of the other characters. Maureen O’Hara and Charles Laughton deliver superlative performances but on the whole it’s a forgettable film with worthwhile goals and moral vigor.