Know Your Occupied Ally: The Image of France in Passage to Marseilles
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 20, Number 2, 1990
- pp. 26-31
- Additional Information
Know Your Occupied Ally: The Image of France in Passage to Marseilles Nina Mjagkij Nina Mjagkij is Assistant Professor ofHistoiy at Ball State University. The battles of World War II were fought not only in Europe and Asia but also on the American screen. Through its Office of War Information the United States government tried to bolster morale by utilizing newsreels, documentaries and feature films. Probably the best known propaganda films were those of the government sponsored series Why We Fight, Know Your Ally and Know Your Enemy.  The rapid surrender of France in June 1940, and the subsequent collaboration of the Vichy government with the Nazis helps to explain why the War Department failed to produce a Know Your Ally: France film. Hollywood substituted for the lack of government sponsored movies about France's role in the war by producing a variety of feature films focussing on the struggle of the French resistance.  Films such as Paris Calling (1941), Paris After Dark (1943), This Land is Mine (1943) and The Cross of Lorraine (1943) suggested that elements within the French government were corrupt but that the French people were important allies in the fight against Germany. Ironically, Hollywood's portrayal of the French resistance was similar to its depiction of the Germans. Feature films about the French resistance differentiated between corrupt collaborators and honest freedom fighters while movies about Germany contrasted evil Nazis with "good Germans". One of the lesser films depicting the French resistance was Warner Brothers' Passage to Marseilles (1944). Directed by Michael Curtiz, the movie stood in the shadow of his 1 943 masterpiece Casablanca and because of that failed to achieve much popularity.  However, Passage to Marseilles stands out as "a rousing tribute to the Free French [and the] most vehemently anti-Vichy" film made during World War II.  Passage to Marseilles is the story of five patriotic prisoners ho escape from a French penal colony in order to return to France and fight for their country. During the passage home their ship is seized by French Nazi collaborators. The prisoners help to put down the fascist coup d'etat and reinstate the patriotic captain. The four surviving prisoners sail for England where they join a Free French air unit and continue their fight against fascism. Characterized by a New York Times critic as a "heavy action drama," the film was nevertheless "needled with political consciousness" and fulfilled a propagandistic function similar to the War Department's documentaries.  It depicted the French people as freedom-loving democrats with courage, integrity, and fighting ability, desirable qualities for any ally.  But there were two problems: (1) France was partially 26 occupied by the Nazis and many French had collaborated with the enemy, and (2) the country had colonial possessions, a distinctly un-democratic feature.  Passage to Marseilles responded to these problems by making a clear distinction between the corrupt and autocratic French government and the freedom loving Free French who stood representative for the French people at large. Thus, the film assured American audiences that while the French government had surrendered to the Nazis, the spirit of democracy was alive in the resistance. Moreover, the film showed how the French government used its colonial possessions as a means to subdue dissidents and opponents, suggesting that the French government had no popular support. Passage to Marseilles opens with introductory captions accompanied by a rousing rendition of the French national anthem. The text informs the audience: "this is the story of a Free French Air Squadron. It is also of France. For a nation exists not alone in terms of maps and boundaries, but in the hearts of men. To millions of Frenchmen, France has never surrendered." The combination of text and national anthem served to indicate ?? the audience that the Free French and not the Vichy government represented the French nation. These "real" French never surrendered to Germany and never would. The narrative ofthe film begins in England where a British war correspondent, Manning (John Loder), is visiting the air base of a Free French unit to report about "one of the deadliest squadrons in the service." At the base Manning...