The Maginot Line was the greatest “oops” in the history of military strategy. It’s not often we walk into a movie theater and hear about this relic, nor about the Siegfried Line on the other side. That is why we must look to classic cinema for these and other lessons. Make no mistake, this film is not primarily about that ill-fated Titanic of fortifications which was outflanked.
Sydney Greenstreet makes mention of both lines in the fictional build up to real war. Greenstreet is once again the slippery villain…this time a Major in the French army who would side with Petain and the Nazis. Peter Lorre, for once, is a good guy (though a pickpocket/safecracker by profession). Claude Rains is convincing and distinguished as Captain Freycinet, but it is Humphrey Bogart as Matrac who leads the show.
For Bogart’s character Jean Matrac we must look to another chapter of history: that of Jean-Paul Marat. Bogart plays a radical journalist who ends up being framed by the government of France and sent to the penal colony at Cayenne, French Guiana. Sound familiar? To Francophiles it certainly should. We must remember Lieutenant-colonel Alfred Dreyfus (another great “oops” of French history). Dreyfus was wrongly accused of being a spy and sent to (you guessed it) French Guiana [in fact, to the worst part: Devil’s Island].
And so…we have Bogart and Lorre and three other “convicts” (some legitimately guilty and others, like Bogart, there on dubious charges) escape in a canoe. I won’t go too much into plot detail in case you feel like actually watching this thing (what a concept!).
The theme, on the other hand, is worth elaboration. We are dealing with patriotism in spite of corrupt governance. As St. Thomas Aquinas said (and I paraphrase), “An unjust law is no law at all.” Another page from history. Here we see the principle of Natural Law which would attract none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. (who cited the same sentiment in his Letter From Birmingham Jail in 1963).
We now live in a time and (we in the United States) a country which is as dynamic with vile antagonists as was France during WWII. Knowing history becomes paramount. Knowledge (as James Madison pointed out) is essential for popular governance. Facts are weapons.
Bogart ends up worthy of being a subject for Jacques-Louis David by film’s conclusion (I’m being purposefully cryptic), but not before giving the Nazis a good lashing. Bogie’s character is similar to the one he played in Key Largo. Matrac’s disillusionment almost makes him become the complete opposite of his former self. In an instance fit for bystander law, Bogart intercedes on behalf of a young boy. The young boy revives the national pride in Bogart–that fire for justice.
We in America would do well to remember the Maginot Line when disillusioned with a government we feel no longer represents us. Even the Prophet Mohammed spoke of the scholar’s ink as superior to the martyr’s blood. Everyone with a mouse to click is fighting. Every blog, post, and tweet is a riposte. Every dollar a vote.
Vive la France! And long live the United States of America!