One thing becomes obvious in this ambitious, star-studded yet staid version of France’s infamous “Dreyfus Affair.” The officious, patriotic family man this scandal centered around was far from being the most fascinating character in his own tragedy.
If the great José Ferrer, at his 1950s peak, and novelist/screenwriter Gore Vidal and this ensemble can’t wring more pathos of this crushing injustice than “I Accuse,” we’d all best stick to “The Life of Emile Zola (1937).”
The story of a Jewish staff officer unjustly accused, convicted and sentenced to Devil’s Island hangs heavy over French history. It was filmed three times in the 1930s alone (including Paul Muni’s “Zola” biopic). His name is invoked in “Papillon,” and his fate the object of much French soul-searching over Antisemitism and blind obedience of and trust in French institutions, most particularly the army, which railroaded this scapegoat and covered up the fact that they did.
Ferrer’s film, somewhat fictionalized, captures the baying of the mob at Dreyfus’ public stripping of his rank. So it wasn’t just the army that had it in for Jews.
But everybody around Dreyfus, in history and in the film, is more colorful — colorfully corrupt, like the real traitor/officer who sold French military secrets to the Germans in the 1890s, Major Ferdinand Esterhazy, given a Devil-may-care narcissism by the great Anton Walbrook (“The Red Shoes,” The 48th Parellel”) , colorfully Antisemitic, like the Army officer (George Coulouris of “Citizen Kane”) who fingers Dreyfus as a spy, colorfully dogmatic like Major DuPaty de Clam, a handwriting “expert” played by Inspector Clouseau’s future nemesis — Herbert Lom.
Against this, Ferrer’s Dreyfus is mere martyr, ramrod straight, defending his “honor” but broken by the tropical hell and isolation of Devil’s Island — dull.
Another drab hero is this film’s depiction of writer, philosopher and activist Emile Zola, whose famous screed “J’Accuse” has become shorthand for every person who rises up and shouts against a grave injustice. Emlyn Williams was cast in the part, and barely registers. And this is the most articulate, fiery, saintly-heroic figure in the tale.
“I accuse General Billot of having held in his hands absolute proof of Dreyfus’s innocence and covering it up, and making himself guilty of this crime against mankind and justice…”
Ferrer, who also directed, ensures that this is a perfectly serviceable summary of the affair, even with the odd liberty taken with the facts. Viveca Lindfors suffers modestly as Mrs. Dreyfus, Leo Genn plays the commanding officer who spotted the cover-up and legendary character actors Donald Wolfit and Harry Andrews dress up the proceedings.
But it’s as if Ferrer, or at least the snarky gadfly Vidal, recognized the REAL star and focus should be the sleazy, lazy, greedy and amoral Esterhazy. Casting the normally heroic Walbrook in the part pulls us into the character, and even the lines describing him (by Williams’ Zola) suggest this is the movie Vidal wanted Ferrer to make.
“This Esterhazy is one of the most glorious liars that ever drew breath. Why, the authority of it, the poise; the man’s a genius!”
MPAA Rating: Approved
Cast: José Ferrer, Anton Walbrook, Viveca Lindfors, Leo Genn, Donald Wolfit, Harry Andrews, Herbert Lom, George Coulouris and Emlyn Williams
Credits: Directed by José Ferrer, script by Gore Vidal. An MGM release.
Running time: 1:39