A charming small-scale ensemble piece about aging war veterans returning to Normandy 50 years after D-Day, A Foreign Field (1993) is bolstered by a peerless international cast all delivering excellent performances. In many ways this modest little film rings truer about the guilt and nostalgia the war's survivors carried on their shoulders than Saving Private Ryan, for all its production values and Academy Awards. This is a must-see veterans of D-Day will want to share with their children and grandchildren, while film buffs will want to see it for its cast alone.
Furniture mogul Cyril (Leo McKern) and the apparently brain damaged, child-like Amos (Alec Guinness) return to Normandy after nearly 50 years to visit the grave of an old army buddy. Eventually they meet up with an American war veteran, cantankerous Waldo (John Randolph), accompanied by his shrewish daughter, Beverly (Geraldine Chaplin), and her much put-upon husband, Ralph (Edward Herrmann). After checking into the same Calvados hotel, Cyril and Waldo both anxiously track down the same lost love, and are crestfallen when they learn that their beloved Angelique (Jeanne Moreau) was actually a prostitute servicing hundreds of men (including Germans) during the war. Their nostalgia is further tempered when they learn that she's now living in a nursing home.
Despite their instant dislike of one another, common experience draws Cyril and Waldo closer together, and with Amos, Beverly, and Ralph in tow, they decide to take Angelique, now an old woman, for a day out. They're joined by another older woman, Lisa (Lauren Bacall), a European who married an American soldier while just barely out of her teens, and who has been drinking herself into an early grave since his death.
A Foreign Field starts out as an innocuous comedy of errors, with Cyril and Waldo each vying for a woman they've not seen in half a century, then don't quite know what to do with her once they find her. Harmonica-playing Amos, an elderly, owlish Stan Laurel type, wanders about with infant like fear and curiosity, forever carrying a regularly polished jam jar for no clear reason. Hen-pecked Ralph has little luck corralling his father-in-law, and becomes violently ill after joining Waldo and Cyril at a local pub for drinks of the local brew.
Gradually though, the darker sad nostalgia and survivor's guilt of its characters open up, and A Foreign Field becomes very special. The last third is filled with little revelations, few of them surprising but undeniably powerful in the hands of actors like McKern, Guinness, and Randolph. McKern is especially good - indeed, he was rarely less than excellent. Fans of his series Rumpole of the Bailey will want to see this: like Rumpole, Cyril is a veteran often talking about his experiences and singing that period's popular songs, and he shares Rumpole's acerbic sense of humor and irony. Late in the film he delivers two powerful monologues as good as anything McKern ever did, and sure to strike a chord with veterans everywhere.
Guinness, at the end of his long career, is fine in a showier, actorly part, which really does seem to have been modeled after Stan Laurel. The once blacklisted John Randolph was a fine character actor often wasted in trivial parts, but here he's basically playing the second lead after McKern. Lauren Bacall, in a role that plays as if it were written for Audrey Hepburn (who died the year this was released), is also quite good, though her very American accent is at odds with her character's origins.
After McKern and Randolph, the film's best performance comes from Jeanne Moreau, a delight as the broken down ex-hooker, now something of a grotesque: fat, outrageously loud wardrobe, croaking voice. She's a little sad and rundown, yet suddenly has the energy of a teenager reliving old times with two long-forgotten men who knew her as she once was. In one typically charming scene, everyone is at a restaurant and quite uncomfortable with one another, when Moreau's Angelique begins singing La Vie En Rose and, gradually, the older generation is transported back to those happy, terrible days in June 1944.
Video & Audio
The exact nature of A Foreign Field's production and release is unclear. The film was produced by the BBC but may have had some theatrical play and was shown at the 1993 Toronto Film Festival. In most markets, though, the film seems to have gone straight to television, and the full-frame presentation here seems correct. The transfer is unexceptional and appears to have sourced a PAL master, as a bit of combing is evident. Mostly, A Foreign Field has the look of a typical television film, and the less-than-stellar transfer thankfully doesn't get in the way of the drama. The 2.0 Dolby Digital Stereo is adequate; there are no subtitle options.
The only supplements are two marginally interesting bits of text: D-Day Facts and Cast Filmographies.
It's not a lost masterpiece, but A Foreign Field appears to have been shamefully under-promoted when it was new and all but forgotten today. But this is a real diamond in the rough, a film certain to enchant fans of its cast and war veterans alike.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.