The Marshal, the General and ‘The Patriotic Traitor’

Jonathan Lynn’s The Patriotic Traitor has recently come to the end of its run at the Park Theatre in London.  It tells the story of the personal relationship between Charles de Gaulle (Laurence Fox) and Philippe Pétain (Tom Conti) from their first meeting before the Great War to their showdown as leaders of two competing Frances during the Second World War – de Gaulle’s Free France and Pétain’s Vichy France.  The play has received largely positive reviews but is probably most well-known for Fox’s dressing down of a heckler at the end of one of the performances.  I went to see the play on 18 March and thought I share my opinion of it and some concerns I have about its version of history.

The staging of the play was very effective.  A large map of France was displayed behind the actors, showing the locations mentioned during the play such as Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises (de Gaulle’s home) and Verdun (scene of the Marshal’s famous victory in 1916).  The demarcation line (France’s wartime internal border) is also traced along the centre of the map reminding the audience of the temporal setting.  At various points throughout the play flags drop down over the map – the tricolour when de Gaulle is speaking to French refugees in England in 1940, and the flag of Nazi Germany after Pétain signs the armistice in the same year.

The play is staged largely as a series of reminiscences as Marshal Pétain sits in his prison cell awaiting trial at the end of the war.  Both in conversation with the prison chaplain and sitting alone in his cell, Pétain’s mind wanders to his relationship with Charles de Gaulle, whom he appears to have considered a surrogate son.  In a series of flashbacks, we see this relationship develop from their first meeting to their final encounter after Pétain has been sentenced for treason.  There are fleeting scenes when de Gaulle speaks to the audience in the form of an inner monologue yet the majority of the play focuses on Pétain either in conversation with himself or in scenes depicting his memories.

The overall merit of the play is in educating the audience in a subject with which they are likely to be unfamiliar.  In fact, I overheard a conversation near to me in which someone stated that they had not known that France had been divided into a northern and a southern zone, and that the Vichy zone was ‘free’ from German control.  If the play encourages the audience to go away and learn more about the subject then that can only be a good thing.

The Marshal, played by Tom Conti (left), and de Gaulle, played by Laurence Fox

Some of the scenes in the play are very effective.  We are shown Pétain’s struggles with the army high command during the Great War as he strove to end the murderous bloodshed at Verdun.  A year later, the Marshal speaks to mutineers in the French army – and then orders the ringleaders to be shot (in a rare moment of cold brutality from the character).  Later in the play, we see de Gaulle speaking to the French from London in 1940, urging his compatriots to resist.  These scenes were particularly well recreated and the latter was quite affecting.

As for the characters, De Gaulle is portrayed as an arrogant and bookish know-it-all, believing absolutely, even before 1914, of his importance to the destiny of France.  In one scene, we see him coming to terms with the birth of his daughter Anne (who had Down’s syndrome) while at the same time experiencing frustration with his apparently stalled military career.  He attributes both to some sort of punishment from God for which he has been specially selected.  By the end of the play, de Gaulle has come to speak about himself in the third person.  He is thoroughly convinced that he embodies France itself.

We see glimpses, too, of de Gaulle’s personality – or lack thereof.  He is awkward in social situations; painfully so upon the first meeting with his future wife Yvonne.  Yet even with his peers his lack of sense of humour leads him to take everything with deadly seriousness, leading him to ask on several occasions, ‘is that a joke?’  By the end of the play he has developed a sense of humour, but a bad one, and I found myself cringing in my seat at his attempts to be funny.

The infamous handshake at Montoire, 30 October 1940

The general feeling we have for Pétain is sympathy.  To some extent, this sympathy stems from the narrative device used throughout the play.  We are seeing Pétain’s own memories and hearing his point of view.  He speaks to himself and the audience in a conversation in which he justifies his own actions.  From my point of view, Pétain came across as a kindly old man, carried along by events out of his control (such as when he is called upon to save France in 1916, having planned to retire).  In contrast with de Gaulle, he is the one with a personality and a sympathetic one at that.  When de Gaulle is in the throes of anguish over his daughter and his career, it is Pétain who urges him to think first of Yvonne.

We see all too little of Pétain at Vichy, trying to reshape France and the French in the image of the National Revolution.  If anything, the audience is encouraged to take Pétain’s side in his dealings with the slimy presence of Laval (de Gaulle in fact refers to him as a ‘slug’, a point of view with which Pétain agrees).  In one of the later scenes in the play, we see Laval and Pétain discussing the former’s decision to make his infamous statement in support of a German victory in Europe (in the play this discussion seems to take place in July 1942 when in reality Laval made the statement in June).  Pétain is palpably more reluctant than Laval to move closer to Germany.  While this is not necessarily untrue, the audience gets the impression that Laval is the evil presence at Vichy, sympathetic with Nazi ideology, while Pétain is more or less forced to react to events.

To the play’s credit, there is a scene in which Pétain is notified of the infamous Vél d’Hiv roundup of Jews in July 1942 and informed of the terrible conditions in which Jewish families are being held.  He is seen to approve of the round up, arguing that he is not discriminating solely against Jews but against other groups too.  Yet this is a fleeting moment in the production and does not undermine greatly the overall sympathetic light in which Pétain is cast.  The play thus falls into the trap of propagating the ‘two Vichies’ interpretation – the evil Vichy of Laval and the benevolent Vichy of the Marshal – a view of the history of the Dark Years that historians moved away from long ago.

I was left with mixed feelings after watching the performance.  On the one hand, if plays such as The Patriotic Traitor bring this period of French history to a wider audience while (hopefully) encouraging further research, then so much the better.  However, I was not satisfied with the portrayal of Pétain.  The ‘Patriotic Traitor’ of the title of course refers to the Marshal – but given the sympathetic light in which he is cast, I did think that the character of de Gaulle himself could fit this moniker, too – having betrayed the father-like Pétain for his own vision of France.


The French Resistance on Film: The Army of Crime/L’armée de crime (2009)

Below is an essay on the film The Army of Crime (2009), recently published in the e-bulletin ‘Film and Fiction for French Historians’ –


Robert Guédiguian’s L’armée du crime (2009) is a story of resistance and collaboration in wartime France. Its focus is the Manouchian group, a network of migrants led by Armenian poet Missak Manouchian and affiliated to the immigrant worker section (Main-d’oeuvre immigrée – MOI) of the Francs-tireurs et partisans (FTP) resistance movement.  The film covers the period between the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 (and the beginning of active communist resistance in France) to the arrest of Manouchian and his comrades in November 1943. The final scene depicts a humiliating photo-shoot in which the resisters are paraded in front of press photographers. Using these photographs, the occupation authorities would later produce the infamous “Affiche Rouge,” a poster featuring ten members of the group that was distributed throughout France with the legend “Liberation by the army of crime.”

As a tool for teaching, the film has much has much to offer students of Vichy France. Film has played an important role in historical approaches to Vichy, both reflecting, and contributing to, changing historical trends. Along with Robert Paxton’s 1972 academic work on Vichy France, Marcel Ophuls’ documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1971) is widely credited with having begun to break down the orthodox history of the war years, which held that the French had, in their vast majority, supported the resistance. Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien (1974) and Au revoir les enfants (1987) have become staples of undergraduate classes as much for what they reveal about the context in which the films were produced as about the war years themselves. Likewise, L’armée du crime – and, one might add, the 2010 film La rafle [1]– is a product of its time. It is useful for illustrating to students the diversity of experience of the war years, and it is symptomatic of a context in which public readiness to confront previously taboo subjects has never been higher.

Having recently taught the film, I would like to share some thoughts on what it showed students about resistance and collaboration in wartime France. I used the film in conjunction with Robert Paxton’s book on Vichy France, John Sweets’s Choices in Vichy France (1986), and Paula Schwartz’s work on women in the communist resistance and the maquis. The focus of the class was therefore very much on the methods and motivations behind resistance and collaboration, as well as how each phenomenon has been portrayed. I usually show L’armée du crime with La rafle since the two films offer some interesting points of contrast. Moreover, both were produced in the last few years and thus have a modern look to them, something that I have found to be important in capturing the imagination of students who might be initially reluctant to view foreign-language cinema. 

The film is useful in demonstrating to students the various forms that resistance could take, from spreading the word (Marcel Rayman and his friend Henri Krasucki drop leaflets from the rooftop of a Parisian building; Thomas Elek chalks communist symbols on the wall of his school), to the killing of German soldiers. We hear, too, radio reports of train derailments and other acts of sabotage. The film depicts female involvement in the resistance: women transport weapons in suitcases, bags and prams, while they help to produce and disseminate anti-German propaganda too. It amply illustrates for students the activities of the partisanes described by Schwartz.

Students found the political motivations of the resisters difficult to discern. While there are clues to the communist affiliation of the group – for example, in one scene the resisters quietly hum the communist anthem the Internationale – these are perhaps too vague for the average student to notice, and usually require explanation. In any case, the political motivations behind the most startling acts of resistance in the film are obscured by more personal concerns. While Thomas Elek plants a bomb in a collaborationist bookshop hidden inside his copy of a Marxist tome, his action is apparently spurred by the anti-Semitic attacks he and his family had suffered. Marcel Rayman assassinates his first German soldier after learning that his father has been deported. When Missak Manouchian throws a grenade into a troop of German soldiers, it is with an image of his dead brother in mind. The resisters in the film seem to be motivated by personal rather than ideological concerns.

Repression and persecution in the film are unmistakably French. French police are shown torturing the resisters and they guard a bus transporting Jews. Frenchmen hang an anti-Jewish poster on the Eleks’ restaurant and later we see French paramilitaries smashing up the café. We learn that the internment camp at Beaune-la-Rolande (also depicted in La rafle), where Marcel’s father is being held, is guarded by gendarmes. Unlike La rafle, where sympathetic officers are shown warning Jews of the impending raid, the police in L’armée du crime display no such compassion. Inspector Pujol, the police inspector for the arrondissement in which the resistance is based, although accepting the promotions offered to him, does not seem to be acting out of self-interest. Nonetheless, Pujol does offer to put Monique Stern in touch with her parents after they are arrested in the round up of Jews, but it is a lie intended to extract sexual favours from her. The arch-collaborator in the film is Superintendent David, head of the Special Brigade tasked with hunting down foreign ‘”terrorists.” The depiction of David is rather one-dimensional. The viewer is led to conclude that he is an out-and-out sadist: during discussions with Inspector Pujol, he is shown handling a birch, while later in the film a German officer congratulates the Superintendent on his torture techniques.

affiche-rouge-fAs for the “ordinary” French – those neither directly involved in resistance nor collaboration – students found little evidence that life under the Occupation was particularly unpleasant. An early scene showing German soldiers at the Trocadéro brought to mind Jean Texcier’s advice to the occupied French in 1940. Yet in L’armée du crime there is little evidence that the population has heeded Texcier’s warning that the Germans are not tourists. The Occupiers hold open-air concerts for French audiences, play soccer in the park, and socialise with French women. As for low-level collaboration, the concierge Madame Boulin denounces the resister M. Forestier to the police. Her reason? Forestier is a “wop.” Her action stands in stark contrast to the concierge in La rafle, who shouts a warning to Jewish residents when the police arrive.

Finally, the historical accuracy of the film offers another subject of discussion, which can be initiated by Guédiguian’s postscript. At the conclusion of the film, on-screen text informs the viewer that the director has “modified certain facts” and adjusted the chronology, measures deemed “necessary” in order that this “true story becomes a modern legend.” Indeed, in the pages of Le Monde, historians Sylvain Bouloque and Stéphane Courtois have criticized the hagiographical style of Guédiguian’s history of the Manouchian group. Furthermore, they claimed that Guédiguian had constructed “a vision contrary to historical truth.” Disobedience in the group – of which Marcel Rayman’s seemingly impulsive assassinations of German soldiers is the best illustration – is exaggerated, as are the seemingly anti-Stalinist convictions of its members. In the film, the treachery of Monique Stern leads to the arrest of the group yet Bouloque and Courtois credit assiduous police work rather than betrayal for the resisters’ demise. Not only does L’armée du crime therefore illustrate to students the methods and motivations behind resistance and collaboration, it offers the chance to discuss the broader question of the use of film to illustrate history.

In sum, L’armée du crime’s is a bleak tale of heroism and sacrifice. It stands in contrast to La rafle. In the latter, both the survival of the child protagonist and his friend (who somehow escaped from a train bound for the East) and the selfless action of nurse Annette Monod – with whom the audience should presumably identify –provide a form of redemptive closure. French characters in L’armée du crime do not display a similar sympathy with the resisters; in fact French resisters are practically absent from the film. The film begins and ends with a roll call of the Manouchian group during which the viewer is struck both by the “foreignness” of the names and the realisation that these resisters did not survive the war years. Guédiguian’s film thus serves to remind viewers of the desperate sacrifices not only of the French but of the exiles and immigrants who had looked to it as a land of refuge.

Robert Guédiguian, Director, L’armée du crime [Army of Crime], Color, 2009, 139 min., France, Agat Films & Cie, Studio Canal, France 3 Cinéma.

  1. See Julian Jackson’s review of La rafle in Volume 1, Issue 1 of Film and Fiction for French Historians, and of Lacombe Lucien by Richard Vinen in Volume 2, Issue 1.