Le Caporal Épinglé/The Elusive Corporal (Jean Renoir, 1962) B+
Even the greatest directors can be caught guilty of plagiary sometimes. What interesting is that in the history of cinema we have at times seen a single director return to familiar themes and plots when making their cinematic paths in history. Recently I watched a double-disc set of Yasojiru Ozu films in which one film, Floating Weeds (1954), was a direct remake of one of the filmmaker’s previous efforts, Story of Floating Weeds (1934). Certain elements were given some tweaking, such a setting and the length of specific scenes, but overall the film in very similar. Jean Renoir, in his 1962 war prisoner film set in World War II Le Caporal Épinglé, did not go quite that distance, but one may be forgiven for believing this final entry in our marathon to be somewhat of a remake of the director’s 1937 masterpiece The Grand Illusion, another film about French POWs attempting to free themselves from the clutches of German prison camps.
But other than with the overall plots of the two movies (prison escapes), Le Caporal Épinglé can and in fact does stand on its own two feet. The film opens with our hero, known only as ‘caporal’, or ‘corporal’ (played by Jean-Pierre Cassal) and his friends already withering away in a prison camp under the torrential rain. France has recently surrendered to the Nazi forces, and while things are looking glum for these sorry saps, there are certain rumours saying that the British might come to their rescue. Some believe these bits of information, preferring not to incur any great risks and wait for help to come, while others, such as the Corporal, are unwilling to remain passive. His is a freedom that shall be earned via escape and it will come sooner rather than later. Not one to be deterred by the unquestionable odds, the Corporal spends the entirety of the film executing several escape plans in motion in the hopes that one of those times he will finally makes his way back to Paris where family awaits him.
Le Caporal Épinglé is arguably one of the more entertaining films we have seen in this marathon. We have seen a lot of energetic and worthwhile material over the past month or so, but this entry possesses a fun gene that is honestly very difficult to deny. Of course, this is a 1962 film and therefore a older, more experienced Renoir is behind the camera lens, one that may not have been awarded the same budgets he once was or one that is quite as present in the conscience of film goers as before, but I believe his point of being at this stage in life awarded him with a fantastic sense of playfulness, creativity and intelligence which helps elevates Le Caporal Épinglé to something more than just a rehash of a previous movie. There is a confidence which exudes from the film that rewards the viewer with a brilliantly paced movie offering a little bit of suspense, a little bit of comedy, some weighty character moments and even a cute and aptly handled love interest.
The film explores the notions of freedom and happiness, although never too deeply as to get bogged down in didacticism. Some of the war prisoners, whether out of cowardice or some other deep seeded reason, have opted to find their way through life from within the camp walls. Work for the Germans, maybe you’ll get by. You might even get some wine and cheese for dinner if you’re particularly loyal. Can anyone really blame those who prefer this route? After all, when it pays off, things in the prison camps aren’t too bad after all, no? We see some of the Corporal’s friends earn special places within the German army (not as soldiers obviously, but translators, cooks, even prison guard assistants) all the while retaining their ultimate status as war prisoners. They’re getting by, and of course there are those rumours saying that their allies will come and rescue them... This is a reasoning the Corporal cannot abide by. Nothing will convince him of the benefits of not taking action. There is a drive in him that refuses to be dormant, a drive that will get him to Paris regardless of how many attempts are required or what the punishments are for being caught. Consequences be damned. Jean-Pierre Cassal lives this character like only the best leading men can. Along with Jean-Louis Barrault’s work in Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier, Cassal gives one of my favourite performances in the marathon. He has leading man qualities that one doesn’t see often in movies. Some actors are sold as leading men, but when it comes down to it... Not so with Cassal. He has a range, a maturity, a depth that make him a terrific actor. The frustration of living within prison camp walls, the exaltation once freedom seems to be just around the next corner, the look in his eyes when seeing the beautiful assistant to the German dentist he visits to remedy savage tooth ache, etc. There are a handful of interesting and fun performances throughout the movie, but I was massively impressed with Jean-Pierre Cassal, an actor whom I was not familiar with up until now. There is little doubt that from now on when I see his name on the cover of a DVD box, I’ll think of picking up the movie.
Renoir provides a lot of differing elements to the proceedings without ever hurting the movie with a unfocused tone. Some moments are genuinely funny, intentionally so, such as when the Corporal and another friend make an escape by riding in the back of a dumpster truck, only to quickly realize the truck is going to a construction site in another area of the same camp. When a German guard finally spots them and demands what in heaven’s name they’re doing, both quickly reply that they are working and join their fellow camp members in piling bricks. Other time the escape attempts are more suspenseful or action oriented. Through it all Renoir makes it very clear that the dangerous endeavour of a prison escape can be quite unforgiving. We see plenty of characters for a matter of minutes, thinking that they will become significant supporting players for the rest of the movie, only to quickly be shown their capture by the German authorities. Other times it is the Corporal who is eventually caught while the other escapee continues his solitary road to freedom. I very much liked this aspect of the movie. I don’t know whether this was intentional or not on the part of Renoir, but it made me think of how in war, whether on the battlefield on in prison camps, it is difficult to make friends because you never know who is going down and when. One moment you think that the coast is clear, and the next the journey is over, at least until the next escape attempt. I thought it was a bit of a bold move on the director’s part. Rather have a regular cast of supporting characters (although some do make brief recurring appearances), many players are only seen for a few minutes and never again.
The final scene is one of hope but with our hero’s ultimate fate still up in the air. I won’t give it away, but I will say that I enjoyed it tremendously. It’s not big and it’s not flashy. As a matter of fact, the ending is really quite abrupt. We come to understand that while this was a trying episode in the Corporal’s life, the war is far from over and much more work needs to be done. It’s simple, and while it closes a specific chapter in this great character’s life, we are left to wonder what he does next.
*And so the Jean Renoir marathon comes to an end. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. I can understand that the topic might not have been as popular as some of the other things going on right now on the blog, but I got a at least few readers interested enough to check out the director’s work, then I’ll consider my job done.