(Battle of the Rails)
Director: René Clément
Production: Coopérative Générale du Cinéma Français; black and white, 35mm; running time: 87 minutes; length: 7800 feet. Released 1945. Filmed, for the most part, in 1945 on location in France.
Screenplay: René Clémént and Colette Audry, with Jean Daurand, based on stories told to Colette Audry by members of the Resistance; photography: Henri Alekan; editor: Jacques Desagneaux; music: Yves Baudrier. The film contains documentary footage shot by an unknown amateur filmmaker.
Cast: Antoine Laurent ( Camargue ); Jacques Desagneux ( Maquis Chief ); Leroy ( Station master ); Redon ( Mechanic ); Pauléon ( Station master at St. André ); Rauzena ( Shunter ); Jean Clarieux ( Lampin ); Barnault and Kronegger ( Germans ) and the French Railwaymen. Some sources list a narration by Charles Boyer.
Awards: Cannes Film Festival, voted among the Best Films, 1946.
Clement, René, La Bataille du rail , Paris, 1949.
Siclier, Jacques, René Clément , Brussels, 1956.
Farwagi, Andre, René Clément , Paris, 1967.
Gabricz, Adam, and Jack Klinowski, editors, Cinema, The Magic Vehicle: A Guide to Its Achievement: Journey One: The Cinema through 1949 , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1975.
Armes, Roy, French Cinema Since 1946: Volume One: The Great Tradition , New York, 1976.
Queval, Jean, in Ecran Français (Paris), 16 October 1946.
Regent, Roger, in Ecran Français (Paris), 14 October 1947.
New York Times , 27 December 1949.
Koval, Francis, "Interview with Clément," in Sight and Sound (London), June 1950.
Eisner, Lotte, "Style of René Clément," in Film Culture (New York), no. 12–13, 1957.
"Clement Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 1 February 1981.
Dossier, in Cinéma (Paris), July-August 1982.
La Bataille du rail (special issue, includes screenplay excerpts), Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), no. 442, May 1995.
* * *
La Bataille du rail stands out as the only seriously realist film which the French made at the Liberation in 1945. At the first Cannes Festival in 1946 it took the grand prize. For a time its director, René Clément, was called a French neorealist, and it is true that he was much interested in and influenced by the Italian school. But Clément and his associates (Colette Audry as scriptwriter and Henri Alekan as cameraman) had thought about making this film when they had organized a discussion club in Nice well before 1945. This club later became IDHEC, the French film school.
La Bataille du rail was shot out of doors with non-actors. Its script is episodic, involving separate sets of characters for each incident. The incidents include: 1) a meeting of the Resistance in the railyards and their narrow escape thanks to a timely air raid, 2) the planting of a bomb on a train despite discovery by German guards, and 3) the taking of hostages by Germans and their pitiful death by firing squad.
Midway through the film an overall dramatic direction is given when we learn that the Allies have landed and that the Germans must get their trains to Normandy. Despite heavy losses in skirmishes with armored trains and troops, the maquis, a military branch of the French underground, destroy four of the seven trains. The film concludes with the most elaborate incident, the derailing of a huge rail convoy, shot from three different angles. This spectacular destruction concludes with a closeup of an accordion slowly falling on itself, providing a musical sigh, as in Dovzhenko's Arsenal. Other comparisons come to mind, especially Malraux's Expoir which, while shot in 1935, came out only in 1945. La Bataille du rail remains fresh in comparison with dramatic resistance films like Henri Calef's Jericho because of its immediacy, speed, and detail. Despite its spectacular violence, the derailment is less memorable than the heroic close-ups of the hostages lined up to be shot. At the instant before his death, we are given an extreme close-up from the vantage point of one of these anonymous patriots. He (and we) watch the indifferent but marvellous motions of a spider on the wall inches away. As the shots ring out, every engine in the railyard lets out a jolt of steam signalling, by its smoke and whistle, the spirit of resistance within the trains themselves.
This 85 minute film was fabled; nevertheless it didn't produce any imitations. Doubtless it had an effect on its director and cameraman who in turn were to rise to the top of the industry in France.