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René Clément directed this unique docudrama about the French railroad workers' resistance to the German occupiers. We're informed that some of the footage, perhaps a substantial part of it, was actually filmed before liberation, in the chaotic time when the Allies were daily gaining territory and neither the resistance fighters nor the Germans were sure how soon hostilities would cease. That sounds similar to the stories told about Rossellini's Roma, cittá aperta in Italy.
The exciting and fast-moving story has a communal hero in its stubborn railway workers and their endless sabotage activities. It was filmed almost as the real historical events were happening. Because there are no stars in the cast -- I don't know if there are even any name actors -- the film has a sense of realism apart from John Frankenheimer's Burt Lancaster star vehicle The Train or Clément's similar epic Is Paris Burning? made twenty years later.
Savant had a relative in Holland who was a train nut and would have loved to have seen this picture; I hope he did. It looks as if the entire railroad establishment of France is placed at the disposal of René Clément's destruction derby. The show jumps right to its key subject by demonstrating right after the titles how contraband mail and people were smuggled from one part of France to another, with refugees hiding inside water cars and letters secreted under carriages. Perhaps the script is exaggerated to make it look as if practically every Frenchman was a determined resistance patriot; the hindsight of eye-opening works like The Sorrow and the Pity disabused us of that notion.
If the film was shot when the Germans were still in control, it must have been in a region already secured by the Allies. It's no guerilla job but a full shoot with cameras on legs or mounted on moving trains. In one shot we can see the shadow of a boom microphone! We're told that cameraman Henri Alekan was himself a fervent resistance fighter.
Although we don't get to know any of the individual saboteurs very well they all make convincing initial impacts. They're very French yet are spared the "Frenchy" gesticulating and emotionalism that Hollywood tends to give them. The dispatch schedulers are smart professionals and the yard workers and engineers are the equivalent of tough American truck drivers. When put to the test they tough things out, and when the Nazis walk them to the wall there is only sullen defiance, no "Vive la France!" BS. Fighting Nazis is not about singing anthems.
Director Clément manages many successful sequences in the second half, where maximum sabotage, foot-dragging and armed action are used to delay a vital troop reinforcment train. Tracks are ruined so that the convoy will be misdirected to a track conducive to attack by resistance partisans -- that the Germans call terrorists, by the way. Some cars are derailed and the French schedulers call up a crane to remove them. The repair crew sabotages the huge crane, which topples on its side; now the Germans must get a bigger crane to move the first one. Meanwhile, Clément has a good time showing the German convoy immobilized behind the blockage, with happy soldiers taking in the sun and cooking on the grass.
In one scene in La bataille du rail a pair of partisans murder a German guard and bury him in a coal tender. The show wisely does not portray the resistance as automatically successful. In one pitched batttle a forward attack train routs the French with ease, making use of a small tank that dismounts from a flat car and quite efficiently mows down scores of opponents.
The script of La bataille du rail doesn't bother to explain much, but from what I gather from the subtitles the action happens far from Paris, in an area where the Maquis (partisan fighters) are independently causing havoc for the Germans. "The resistance" is mainly used as a general expression. The occupational resistance was really dozens of semi-independent groups, that more often than not had diverging aims and were hostile to one another. One train car rolls by with a Communist hammer and sickle chalked onto its sideboard. I can imagine that all of these opposing contingents made for a problematic power struggle after the liberation -- every faction that fought probably expected that their ideas for the future of France should prevail.
All the train footage looks authentic and gritty. When good news about the approaching allies is passed on the assembled engines hit their steam whistles, and for a moment the vast yard is like a giant, happy train set. In one jaw-dropping scene, a train barrels into a patch of sabotaged track and piles up in a halatious (hellacious?) wreck. The angle may suggest the use of miniatures but I believe the entire scene is real. Only the tanks and cannon that tumble off the flatcars may be mock-ups - they tend to go airborne a little too willingly. One telephoto shot of the engine barreling through the air, the tracks cut off below it, is really impressive.
Facets' DVD of La bataille du rail is a great show that for quality is merely adequate. Encoding and transfer are good but the transfer element appears to be an intact but contrasty print. The audio isn't the best either. We hope that this isn't the absolute best source element in existence. The viewing experience is not substantially impaired, but this is not a primo version of the movie. It may be all there is.
The disc has no extras and the barest of menu setups, which can be good after waiting through the lengthy animated preliminaries on many DVD presentations. I do wish there were more information about the fim and its claim of being partially filmed in secret before the liberation. The IMDB says that Charles Boyer did the narration, but I don't know if we're hearing his voice on this track, or if he was recorded for an English-language release.
Savant reviewed the disc from a check copy without packaging or text, so I don't know if it makes any disclaimers or gives information about the transfer source.You'd think this film would be a national treasure, unless Frenchmen are in no mood for movies celebrating their liberation - the ending of La bataille du rail is a simple but joyous shot of a victory train adorned with flags.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
La bataille du rail rates: