It has been a long time since I posted on Wartime Bogart, and sadly, my small series will end here (Action in the North Atlantic was a disappointing advertisement for the US Navy, and not worth much comment). Passage to Marseille is a magnificent, flawed, and colourful film that raises the problem of patriotism when you think your own country is a coward. The Free French, a movement you don’t often see on-screen, are the heroes of Bogart’s second-last wartime picture. If political Hollywood movies have shown us one thing, it is that every cause has to be “personalized” for the hero.
More on that later. First, I should give a little synopsis of Passage to Marseille. Capitaine Freycinet (Claude Rains) presides over a Free French airbase tucked into the green pastures of rural England. He tells a curious war journalist about the history of the enigmatic Jean Matrac (Bogart), one of the pilots. Matrac was an anti-appeasement journalist in France who is framed for murder. His wife Paula (Michèle Morgan, less successful in America than in native France) vows she will wait for his release from Devil’s Island in Guiana. There he meets the other convicts: Marius (Peter Lorre), Renault (Philip Dorn), Petit (George Tobias), and Garou (Helmut Dantine), who plan an escape to the motherland. They are aided by butterfly catcher Grandpère, played by Vladimir Sokoloff, who later appeared in The Magnificent Seven (1960) as the wise old peasant.
Screenwriters Casey Robinson and Jack Moffitt structure the unfolding back stories around the character’s own memories. Passage to Marseilles is like a Russian doll, doing to flashbacks what Inception does to dreams. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, all treated by director Michael Curtiz’s gift at voiceover and storytelling.
The narrative gets really interesting when the escaped convicts are picked up by Ville de Nancy, a French ship en route to Marseille. The Maginot Line is about to be outflanked by the Germans, dividing the ship’s crew between Vichy sympathizers and Free French. Representing the fascism Matrac so despises is the corpulent Sydney Greenstreet – a familiar Bogie adversary – as Major Duval. Rains’ Freycinet is not so poor and not so corrupt: he wants to help to patriotic convicts join the fight against Hitler.
Matrac also wants to return to his wife, and it is here that the distinctions between “motherland” and woman are blurred. While he cannot reunite with either France or Paula, he can fly over both, leaving letters after each bombing raid on Germany. There are echoes of the “outlaw hero” here, a man who overcomes disgust in his nation’s politics to fight for the ideal of the nation itself. Robert Ray describes the reconciliation between individual and community in his essay The Thematic Paradigm:
The reconciliatory pattern found its most typical incarnation […] in one particular narrative: the story of the private man attempting to keep from being drawn into action on any but his own terms. In this story, the reluctant hero’s ultimate willingness to help the community satisfied the official values. But by portraying this aid as demanding only a temporary involvement, the story preserved the values of individualism as well.
When the anti-fascist Captain Malo turns the ship from Marseilles after the fall of Paris, Matrac is initially dismayed: he wants nothing more than return to Paula and his young son. However, as the ship journeys on to the UK he grows committed to fighting until Hitler is defeated and he can come home a free man. Casablanca illustrated this dichotomy more clearly, and Ray holds Curtiz’s previous effort as the ultimate example of the “reluctant American”.
In fact this film feels even more like a Casablanca reunion than Across the Pacific felt like a Maltese Falcon reunion. Most of the same players are here: Bogart, Rains, Lorre, Greenstreet, Dantine, composer Max Steiner, writer Casey Robinson, Curtiz, and even producer Hal B. Wallis. It is typical of the assembly line model of filmmaking, when contracted talent would churn out picture after picture for a studio. Casablanca has often been called an “accidental hit” because it was one of many wartime adventure films Warner Bros. was producing.
And yet Passage to Marseilles is still well worth watching. Curtiz can guide you through a hellish night raid on German factories, a mutiny and counter mutiny on the Ville de Nancy, and a ship vs. plane duel involving a particularly devastating Focke Wulf 200. Claude Rains always seems to get the best lines: he tells Manning that Matrac “still fights. The bombs that are dropping tonight are editorials the Germans will understand.” Perhaps most impressive in the film’s mournful and touching conclusion, consisting (spoiler alert) of Matrac’s last letter to his wife and son, also read by Rains. A dedication to those who died for freedom, it is moving and dignified enough to be part of a Remembrance Day’s celebration. After the madcap fun of All Through the Night, it is fitting to end on a solemn note, pulling the celluloid out of the realm of Indiana Jones fantasy and into the real world of mourning and sacrifice.