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Representing Nationality in This Land is Mine
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MLN 111.5 (1996) 954-975

In its very title, This Land is Mine (Renoir, 1943) registers both the historical crises the film seeks to represent and the representational crises this history engenders. Like those of other war-time Hollywood melodramas that deal with European fascism--The Moon is Down (Pichel, 1943), for instance, or Hangmen Also Die (Lang, 1943)--Renoir's title produces by way of its earnest sententiousness, its pared-down declarative grammar, a forceful rhetorical gesture of reclamation. Yet the title's blunt assertion of ownership necessarily recalls the interrogative challenge to which it responds: Whose land is it? In answer to this otherwise unasked question, in fact, the title may be understood as asserting either reclamation or usurpation, signifying either the triumphal liberation the film's rhetoric heralds or, alternatively, the fascist occupation of a small European town that its narrative chronicles. In spite of the title's first-person form and the sense of immediacy it implies, the sentence is spoken by no character in the film itself, but appears as the patriotic slogan at the head of a leaflet distributed by underground resisters of the occupation. At a crucial moment in the narrative, the meekly apolitical schoolmaster Albert Lory (Charles Laughton) pockets the leaflet instead of discarding it, leading to his subsequent arrest. The Nazi officers who discover the leaflet on his person understand the slogan as evidence of Lory's guilt, but since the audience has witnessed Lory's repeated failures to resist the occupation, his arrest invests the title with a third potential level of significance, designating a third position possible in relation to the titular assertion of ownership, that of ideological neutrality. One of the lessons of Renoir's essentially didactic film, however, is a familiar one in Hollywood's war-time narratives of European fascism. Neutrality, the film tells us, though understandable in itself, will always be read in this historical context as commitment, as allegiance to secret resistance. It is a lesson Lory has learned by the end of the film when, newly patriotic, he delivers himself of a protracted oration of nationalist pride, reclaiming the land as his, even though he knows doing so will mean facing the same fascist firing squad he saw shoot down his mentor the previous night.

Still, the implied question -- Whose land is it?--has not been answered with finality at film's end because, released in 1943, the crisis the film represents had yet to be resolved. The near-universal criticism of the last third of Renoir's film responds, no doubt, to its awkward effort to achieve a semblance of ideological closure before the end of the story is known. In this sense, though the film has typically been singled out by critics for unusual abuse, it is fully representative of Hollywood's narratives of occupation, from the films named above to Casablanca (Curtiz, 1943). In each of these films, the demand for narrative closure meets the threat of historical open-endedness, and in most cases the threat is circumvented by transforming the conventions of a combat-film into those of a drama of personal conversion. Albert Lory's conversion, in This Land is Mine, from apathy to patriotism, from cowardice to heroism, from pacifism to activism, can serve as a useful measure of the way war-time Hollywood modifies or reconsolidates its conventions as it attempts to absorb contemporary historical developments.

If critics find Lory's conversion less convincing than, say, Rick's/Bogart's admittedly different one in Casablanca, meanwhile, this is likely traceable to expectations of Renoir-as-auteur -- famously celebrated for his casual "off-handedness," his improvisatory spontaneity, his ideological agility and "openness." Thus, the apparent ideological overdeterminism of This Land is Mine reveals much not only about Hollywood's confrontation with history but, at the same time, about Renoir's confrontation with Hollywood.

Nationality as Ideology

Like most examples of Hollywood's war-time melodrama, Renoir's film is about crises of nationhood, but these crises are in a sense nothing but the logical outcome of the film's own already fairly explicit definitions of nationhood. The film's ideological burden is to wend its circuitous...

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