The great French movie star Jean Gabin (1904–1976) was in movies by the greatest French directors of the late-1930s often playing doomed men — Jean Renoir (The Lower Depths, Grand Illusion, La bête Humaine), Marcel Carné (Le quai des brumes, Le jour se lève), and Julien Duvivier (Pépé le Moko and of course La Bandera). Starring alongside him here is Annabella, a French woman playing a Moroccan woman – who had appeared in Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon’ (1927) aged 16, Rene Clair’s ‘Le Million’ (1931) and later in Marcel Carne’s ‘Hotel Du Nord’ (1938). She was seen as a rather exotic character similar to Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman and Marlene Dietrich who were popular as the great surge of foreign feminine mystique was invading Hollywood at the time. She later married Tyronne Power…
Gabin had a wonderful penetrating gaze, a quiet strength, and an persona as a sort of unshakeable everyman. A French matinee idol of the prewar period, his quiet stoicism was his calling card. His work with Julien Duvivier would prove his most important: it was their third, ‘Pépé le moko’, that, in creating the romantic criminal antihero archetype, shot Gabin into the stratosphere. After that Renoir’s ‘La Grand Illusion’ shot him to superstar status…giving audiences a strong point of identification.
Writer Michael Atkinson: “Without its iconic precedent, there would have been no Humphrey Bogart, no Robert Mitchum, no Jean-Paul Belmondo...” Gabin’s roles in poetic realist films underscore the element of nostalgia although this nostalgia is gestured toward a generalized nostalgia for lost time. Gabin’s knack of playing the everyman – his frustrated outbursts and his internalized longing for place and time helps to define his image.
Rather than amplifying the contrast between masculine and feminine or creating fundamental conflict around gender differences his masculinity seems to subsume ‘feminine’ traits like empathy, sensitivity and vulnerability into his screen persona.
Because Frenchness is central to Gabin’s star image it is therefore intriguing that Gabin’s first unqualified success, La Bandera, situated Gabin as the ideological centre of a band of French expatriates serving on the Spanish Foreign Legion in Colonial North Africa. Gabin’s near-exclusive identification with the common Frenchman appears a deliberate but somewhat unusual move in the arc of his career. In the 1930s, many French actors – even big stars – turned up on screen playing non-white characters of foreign origin, which includes ‘La Bandera’
It is an imperialist film that, through its portrayal of indigenous peoples as inherently nefarious reveals the structure that can be found more or less explicitly in a number of Gabin’s other films: the French identity of his character is affirmed against the ‘other’ – Josephine Baker in ‘Zouzou’, the Kasbah in ‘Pepe Le Moko’… La Bandera combines the colonial adventure with that of the legion, an institution that functions as a manufacturer of identity.
Beyond the colonialist (and racist) ideology of the film, we can deduce the story of a more abstract fantast, that of an ideal and consensual national identity. After La Bandera, Gabin’s Frenchness remained constant except for rare instances of integral exoticism in which the entire cast of French actors represents a foreign nationality as in Jen Renoir’s ‘Las Bas-Fonds’ 919360, a film adapted from a Russian novel whose Russian setting bears little weight to the plot.
Jean Gabin would achieve prominence thanks to Duvivier, who starred in three of the defining French films of the 1930s: ‘La Bandera’ (1935), ‘La Belle équipe’ (1936) and ‘Pépé le Moko’ (1937). What connects these films, in addition to Gabin's remarkable performance, is a distinctive style of French cinema, ‘poetic realism’, which was very much in vogue in this period.
Whilst unquestionably one of the most important filmmakers in the history of French cinema, Julien Duvivier has never achieved the status accorded to other great directors of his country, such as his contemporaries Jean Renoir, Marce Carné and René Clair.
Duvivier made popular melodramas, thrillers, religious epics, comedies, wartime propaganda, musicals, and literary adaptations. Although unquestionably one of the greatest filmmakers to come from France, his work remains largely under appreciated by film scholars and still remains unknown to those outside of his native country.
Jean Renoir once proclaimed, "If I were an architect and I had to build a monument to the cinema, I would place a statue of Julien Duvivier above the entrance….This great technician, this rigorist, was a poet." Duvivier's sensuous and brooding Foreign Legion melodrama was a commercial success on release and made as mentioned Jean Gabin a star, helping to forge his romantic image, solidified in ‘Pépé le Moko’, as the doomed existential antihero haunted by a criminal past and driven toward death.
Set in Morocco, the film is based on a 1931 novel of the same title by ex war correspondent Pierre Mac Orlan, about the Rif War (1920-1926) between Spanish forces and Berber tribesmen inhabiting the Rif mountains in northern Morocco. Orlan's best-known novel was Quai des Brumes (1927), which was adapted into the 1938 film also starring Jean Gabin. Here the title refers to a "flag," or battalion within the Spanish Foreign Legion. La Bandera is part of a genre known as cinéma colonial in French cinema of the 1920s and 1930s, creating an entire subgenre of films about the Foreign Legion, among them Jacques Feyder's Le Grand Jeu (1934). Some French leftist critics, including several from the Popular Front, criticized La Bandera's portrayal of military adventurism.
Filmed in Spain and Morocco on the eve of civil war—the original theatrical release was dedicated to "Colonel Franco" – and his troops. The dedication was removed after the Spanish civil war. ‘La Bandera’ is an Orientalist fantasy infused with the stylistic qualities of reportage, most notably in the tense chase sequence through the mean streets of Barcelona, about which Alistair Cooke observed, "It looks like an exquisite newsreel taken away and baked brown to give you the feel of the air."
Despite its reputation as an imperialist film, ‘La Bandera’ subtly points to the senselessness of colonialism by highlighting the shared marginality of European Legionnaires and the people they are ordered to subjugate. The film was a tremendous popular success. Far and away the top domestic box office performer of the year, the film played especially well outside Paris and stands out as the top-grossing legion film of the decade.
eIt's a wonderfully fascinating and engrossing film…