Queen Mary, University of London
De Gaulle entered history through a radio broadcast in 1940. Later, during the Fifth Republic between 1958 and 1969, he turned himself into a consummate television performer. But curiously this brilliant comédien has been almost absent from the cinema screen. The contrast could not be greater with Churchill who has been portrayed in feature films some 60 times. There are actors who have made almost a speciality in depicting Churchill on screen. Because Churchill – although a familiar radio voice during the war and the subject of many wartime newsreels – was a politician who preceded the television age he posed less of a challenge for filmmakers than de Gaulle, who after 10 years dominating French TV screens, had become intimately familiar to the entire French population. We know too well what de Gaulle was like – at least his public performances – whereas when we see Churchill on screen we judge not how he compares to the reality but how he compares to Robert Hardy, Albert Finney, Gary Oldman – and others who have portrayed him on screen.
It might all have been very different. In 1942, on the urging of President Roosevelt, Warner Brothers commissioned William Faulkner to write the screenplay of a propaganda feature film about de Gaulle. Given Roosevelt’s legendary mistrust of de Gaulle, this seems surprising but it was a moment when American policy towards de Gaulle had not yet settled into total rejection. Faulkner set about the task with gusto and over five months he produced some 1200 pages for a scenario of a film that was variously entitled Journey To Dawn, Journey To Hope, Free France, and finally The De Gaulle Story. De Gaulle was presented a near Christ-like figure as can be seen from this extract:
De Gaulle: “I thought you were dead. What brought you back to life?”
1st Soldier: “France, General.”
2nd Soldier: “Someone whispered ‘de Gaulle’ in his ear.”
De Gaulle: “Does that raise the dead in France?”
2nd Soldier: “It will do better than that now. It will raise the living.”
In the end the film was never made. Faulkner wanted to mix fact with imagination but de Gaulle’s representatives in the United States who were invited to comment on the script, kept raising errors of fact. One on occasion they produced a list entitled “Observations on Inexact Details.” They also worried that de Gaulle was disappearing from the story as Faulkner moved to concentrate on the struggle of two fictional brothers, one a Pétainist and one a Gaullist. All this exasperated Faulkner who wrote that only by overruling these criticisms could the filmmakers “gain the freedom to make a picture which the American audience whose money will pay for it will understand and not find dull.” In the end the project was abandoned, partly for this reason and partly because Roosevelt had now definitively turned against de Gaulle. The experience was not entirely wasted for Faulkner who redeployed some of the ideas into his script for the film of Hemingway’s To Have and To Have not, where the character played by Humphrey Bogart is redeemed by giving his life for the Free France. So the first attempt to make a film about de Gaulle ended up in a film starring Humphrey Bogart. (There was a coda to this story over forty years later. Faulkner’s script was resuscitated and published – in French – in 1988. The Le Monde journalist Bertrand Poirot-Delpech used it to produce his own version, Moi, Général de Gaulle, which was turned into a TF1 telefilm in 1990 with Henri Serre – best known as Jim in Truffaut’s Jules et Jim – as de Gaulle and Donald Pleasance as Churchill.)
After de Gaulle returned to France as a hero in 1944 he might have been an obvious subject for film treatment. But films of the post-liberation period preferred to stress the Resistance as a collective enterprise rather than one incarnated in the life of any individual however remarkable (the locus classicus being René Clément’s Bataille du Rail). Then after 1946 de Gaulle himself tarnished his own image by descending unsuccessfully into the political arena with his party the RPF. And this was also a period when the intellectual dominance of the Communist Party was unlikely to incite filmmakers to take on the challenge of heroising de Gaulle.
All this changed after de Gaulle’s return to power in 1958 when over the next ten years his new regime did everything in its power to celebrate the Resistance and de Gaulle’s role in it. But to dare to ask an actor to portray de Gaulle himself would have been an act of lèse majesté. Thus in the massive 1966 Franco-American production on the Liberation of Paris, Is Paris Burning? (starring Alain Delon, Kirk Douglas, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Orson Welles, and many others) there was no question of portraying de Gaulle himself. The film’s director René Clément commented that he was capable of “representing the devil but not le bon dieu” – so Hitler (the devil) appears in the film (played by Billy Frick) but de Gaulle (le bon dieu) only appears in archive newsreel from the period. In another iconic film of the Resistance produced in this period, Melville’s Armée des Ombres (1969), ‘de Gaulle’ does appear for about thirty second to pin a medal on the resistance hero played by Paul Meurisse– but although de Gaulle is seen, his voice is not heard. Because of his physical resemblance, the actor who played de Gaulle on this occasion, André Cayla-Legrand, became a specialist in these fleeting – and silent – impersonations of the General: in the comedy, Martin Soldat (1966), in the resistance drama Le Bon et les Méchants (Claude Leclouch, 1976), in the comedy on May 1968, La Carapate (Gerard Oury, 1978) and in another comedy Bourreau des coeurs (1983). Perhaps most famous for English speaking audiences was his appearance in The Day of the Jackal (1973) where the assassin Edward Fox takes aim at de Gaulle (Cayla–Legrand) and misses him. Thus by a curious twist of events, de Gaulle, who had entered history as a voice with no face had become on the cinema screen a face with no voice.
One or two filmmakers did nurse the idea of breaking the taboo. Pierre Schoendoerffer, well known for the film Dien Bien Phu (1993) celebrating the French army, contemplated the idea of a film about de Gaulle and the OAS but this never materialised. Bertrand Tavernier also toyed with making a de Gaulle film (based on a script by his regular scénariste Jean Cosmos) with Jean Reno in the title role but the producer wanted Gerard Depardieu instead, and Tavernier regretfully abandoned the project.
Even after de Gaulle’s death, French filmmakers and producers were possibly inhibited by the fact that de Gaulle remained a controversial and contested personality: for the soixante-huitard generation he was a somewhat passé conservative who did not excite their imaginations; for conservatives he was the man who had betrayed the cause of French Algeria. It was only after 1990 that the de Gaulle myth took off.
Foreign directors did not face the same obstacles as French ones but their interest in de Gaulle only concerned those moments when his story intersected with the characters they were depicting. So we do find fleeting appearances by de Gaulle on cinema screens outside France. He appears (played by Vernon Dobtcheff) in Ike, a 1979 American TV series on Eisenhower (Robert Duvall) and briefly in two American films on Jacqueline Kennedy: Jackie Bouvier Kennedy (2000) where he is played by the French Canadian actor Marcel Sabourin and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (1981) where de Gaulle (played by Maurice Marsac) utters the line “Ah, you speak French!” De Gaulle (played by André Penvern) also appears briefly in the film Grace of Monaco (2014). This irredeemably bad film (a ‘royal Europudding’ as one critic described it) was not saved by the performance of Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly and contained from de Gaulle the line: “I’ve survived an assassination attempt. I’m not afraid of an actress.” De Gaulle (played by Hervé Pauchon) also appeared in the 1992 American TV series on the young Indiana Jones in an episode where Indiana Jones finds himself a prisoner in Germany in 1916 alongside captain de Gaulle who is lecturing to his fellow officer. As was the intention of the series there are snatches of didiactic dialogue:
Indiana Jones: Do you hate the Germans?
De G: They are the natural enemy of France. We fought them in 1871, we fight them now, and before the century is over we will fight them again.
Finally, and most recently, the hugely successful Chinese TV series, Diplomatic Situation (2019), which covers China’s diplomatic relations with the outside world from 1948 to 1976, has five episodes featuring de Gaulle (played by Stéphane Dausse) who is celebrated in China for having been the first Western leader to recognize Communist China in 1963.
If de Gaulle on the cinema screen was an evanescent and – in France – silent presence, he did have an occasional presence on the stage. In 1987, the Theatre National de Strasbourg put on a spectacle on de Gaulle’s famous trip to Ireland in 1969 after his resignation. Maurice Garrel played de Gaulle and read texts from him. Garrel also played de Gaulle in Jean-Marie Besset’s play Villa Luco (a reference to the house where Pétain died) which imagined a fictional meeting between Pétain and his former protégé de Gaulle in 1945 on the Ile d’Yeu where Pétain was living out his life in prison. (The same idea was used by the British author Jonathan Lynn – most famous for the TV series Yes Minister – in his 2016 play the Patriotic Traitor which traced the relationship between the two men and ended with an imaginary meeting between Pétain [Tom Conti] and de Gaulle [Laurence Fox] in 1945 while Pétain was awaiting trial.) Besset offered a second version of de Gaulle on stage (played by Stéphane Dausse) in his most recent play Jean Moulin, L’Evangile (2018) which has two long scenes featuring de Gaulle – as well as one with Moulin in bed with a young man.
These theatre stagings obviously reached only small audiences but this was not the case of Celui qui a dit non 1940-1945 (1999), a huge spectacle mounted by the theatrical impresario and director Robert Hossein. Having already staged Les Misérables, Danton and Robespierre, and the life of Jesus, Hossein decided to tackle de Gaulle (played by Jacques Boudet) in the run up to the centenary of his birth. The spectacle, performed in the 3700 seat Palais des Congrès, was prepared by an avalanche of publicity. The Paris mairie even allowed a huge cross of Lorraine to be put up outside the Palais des Congrès. Co-written by the very Gaullist Alain Peyrefitte and less Gaullist popular historian Alain Decaux, this spectacle received the blessing of the de Gaulle family (who were said to have reserved 250 seas for themselves); and the Gaullist mayor of Paris (Jacques Chirac went to see it twice).
The Hossein extravaganza helped to break the taboo on representing de Gaulle. And over the following two decades de Gaulle began to appear regularly in TV telefilms. The first of these in 2006 was Bernard Stora’s two-part Le Grand Charles (de Gaulle played by Bernard Farcy – after Jean Reno refused) covering the period 1939 to 1959. The headline of one newspapers suggests what an event this was deemed to be: “France 2 dares to resuscitate the Grand Charles.” This was a nuanced and subtle portrayal that covered not only the war but also very unheroic period of the RPF and the so-called traversée du désert. Other tele-films followed.
Despite the increasing number of television representations no cinema director had yet taken on the challenge of a full scale film on de Gaulle until the release in March 2020 of Gabriel Le Bomin’s De Gaulle. Le Bomin, director of a number of documentaries on the France Libre and a feature film, Nos Patriotes, on a Senegalese soldier caught up in the defeat of 1940, knows the history well. The year 2020 – 130th anniversary of de Gaulle’s birth, 80th anniversary of the Appel du 18 juin and 50th anniversary of de Gaulle’s death – had been billed as an année de Gaulle, and the film’s release was preceded by a barrage of publicity.
The film had a relatively good critical reception although already minds were turning to the looming virus. In ten days it was seen by 595,179 spectators which was quite a promising start. Then, as if some kind of sinister warning by de Gaulle from the grave against daring to portray him on screen, the film closed after only ten days when the government shut all cinemas. The film concentrated on the dramatic two months of May-June around the Fall of France, and in a very different way, these months of March-May 2020, were among the most dramatic that France had lived since the war. In his speech announcing the French lockdown President Macron announced that France was “at war”; and as thousands of Parisians fled Paris to their maisons secondaires there were comparisons with the Exode of 1940. And then, as if to compensate for the disappearance of de Gaulle from the cinema, Didier Raoult, a doctor from Montepellier, claiming to have found his own cure to the virus by using the anti-malarial drug hydroxychlorine, presented himself as a rebel against the medical establishment as de Gaulle had been against the military establishment in the 1930s. Comparisons were regularly made between Raoult and de Gaulle. He was frequently filmed from his office looking like a cross between a druid and ageing pop singer pop star. Rather than release their film on DVD, the producers chose to wait for the end of confinement and test it out again in cinemas. From mid-June the film was again on view in cinemas – even if the initial momentum has been lost.
The biopic is a genre more popular in Britain and the United States than France. The most recent ones in France, of varying quality, have been not of politicians but singers (Claude François, Dalida, Piaf, Barbara), and there have been two films on Yves St Laurent. There are many pitfalls to the genre. One is the tendency to hagiography, and another is the problem of structure and form. Those biopics that try to cover a whole life tend to be formless and flat, and it is hard to keep up the momentum. And when the life is as long as de Gaulle’s the interest of the spectator becomes distracted by observing how well the filmmaker has managed the ageing process. The trick of a good biopic is to find an angle of attack, to focus on a specific moment in the hero’s life. In this case Le Bomin chose to focus on only two months of May-June 1940: France’s defeat and de Gaulle’s first speech from London: the moment when de Gaulle enters History.
The film is nicely constructed, and conveys the period atmosphere quite convincingly. The scenes of the exode are effective even if no match for René Clément’s Jeux Interdits or Techiné’s Les Egarés. Eminently watchable, the film is cinematically unimaginative – almost a textbook example of the defects of the cinéma de qualité that Truffaut so memorably denounced four years before de Gaulle returned to power. It has the solid virtues of the classic biopic but also the defects. It tends towards solemnity and piety; there is too much portentous music and too much clunky expository dialogue, and too much cliché. Churchill (Tim Hudson) growls like an actor playing Churchill, chomping on cigars and pouring himself brandies (but curiously does not offer de Gaulle a glass). One nice touc6h is a scene of Pétain (Philippe Laudenach) and Weygand plotting against the Republic next to each other at a urinal, unaware that Paul Reynaud is listening to them in one of the cubicles. Less inspired is a scene where Yvonne de Gaulle has a nightmare of their house at Colombey being overrun by German soldiers who drink the wine and manhandle her daughter like a scene from Visconti’s The Damned.
Where a filmmaker or writer has allowed themselves complete poetic licence, as in the imaginary meetings between de Gaulle and Pétain after 1945, historians have no grounds to pick holes. But the rules are slightly different when a film purports to represent historical truth as is the case here. Anyone familiar with the details of the period will notice historical approximations in almost every frame. To give just a few examples:
- Pétain did not propose an armistice (even if he may have been thinking about it) on 6 June when the government was still in Paris – and the matter was first raised by Weygand formally on 11 June at Briare (but the films jumps immediately from Paris to Bordeaux).
- De Gaulle was not stripped of his rank and condemned by Vichy on 18 June before he made his first speech from London. This did not happen until several days later.
- De Gaulle was never present at any meeting where Lord Halifax expressed a desire to make peace with Hitler.
- De Gaulle certainly did not listen to Pétain’s speech along with a group of other people in London (seemingly in a club); the speech was made while he was in the air on his way to London.
- The scene in which Churchill allows de Gaulle to speak on the BBC is wrong in almost every particular.
But in the end none of this matters too much. Luckily the filmmakers did not have Gaullist representatives watching over their shoulders like Faulkner in 1942. Making a film is not the same as writing history; footnotes are not required. So despite its many compressions, elisions and inaccuracies, the film gets the essence of the story right – as one would expect with the historian Olivier Wieviorka acting a historical consultant. Anyone wanting to know the basic chronology of events in France in these dramatic weeks would find them well depicted in this film.
The performances generally carry conviction. Philippe Laudenach who happens to be exactly the age that Pétain was in 1940 looks plausible; Alain Lenglet looks relatively like Weygand; and while Olivier Gourmet looks nothing like Reynaud he effectively portrays his ups and downs – even if the scene of him screaming at de Gaulle seems unlikely (by this time one can assume Reynaud was slightly awed by de Gaulle whose patron he had once been). It is a pity that Gilles Cohen as Mandel was not given the stiff wing-collars which were one of Mandel’s trademark characteristics.
What about Lambert Wilsons’s interpretation of de Gaulle? One problem in playing the General – and perhaps one reason why filmmakers have been reluctant to climb this mountain – is his odd physical appearance and great height (1.96m). As far as height in concerned, Wilson at 1.90m is the same as Laurence Fox, taller than Michel Vuillermoz (1.84) but shorter than Bernard Farcy (1.92). Physically he looks convincing in the role – although rather more tanned than the pale de Gaulle. His performance is intelligent and restrained, and carries conviction; he sensibly makes no attempt to imitate the voice. On the downside, he does not give us enough of a sense of de Gaulle’s caustic wit and icy contempt for human weakness. But this may be a result of the de Gaulle that the film seeks to convey.
The key parti pris of the film is to depict the human being behind the historical figure. In making this choice, the film fits into the most recent manifestation of the de Gaulle myth as excellently analysed by Sudhir Hazareesingh in his book on the subject. This phase was inaugurated by the publication of De Gaulle mon père by de Gaulle’s son Philippe in 2003. The book was a publishing sensation selling almost one million copies, and turned Philippe into a media star. Although its historical judgments were problematic and make de Gaulle into a more conservative figure than he was in reality, its main interest was to present de Gaulle in a domestic family setting. The film follows in the same vein – but producing a rather more sentimentalised version than emerges from Philippe’s bleaker portrait of his father.
The film opens with de Gaulle in embrace with Yvonne in April 1940 while on leave; the presumption would seem to be that they have just had (or are just about to have) sex. After this comes a scene of de Gaulle in the bosom of his family surrounded by his son Philippe, his daughter Elizabeth, his Down Syndrome child Anne beautifully played by Clémence Hittin, and her nurse Marguerite Potel. Yvonne helps him on with his uniform as he returns to the battle. The rest of the films cuts back and forth between the travails of Yvonne and the family and de Gaulle desperately doing what he can to reinvigorate the French war effort. The stories interlock at one moment. On 15 June, de Gaulle drives off from Bordeaux to Brittany in order to take a boat to London in a last attempt to salvage the alliance. He has a short diversion to Carentac to see his wife and tell her she must not remain in Brittany which has become too dangerous. This visit did take place but its depiction here feels phoney, saccharine and implausible (and surely de Gaulle would have been in uniform not a suit?). The couple embrace, de Gaulle expresses to his wife his despair at the situation; she quotes back to him words he had written on leadership in his 1932 book Le Fil de l’Epée; he replies “You know my secrets by heart”; and she responds “It’s you that I know by heart.” Yvonne has saved France by reinvigorating the morale of her husband. A few days after de Gaulle has left, Yvonne courageously gets herself and her family on a boat to London not knowing if de Gaulle is there or not. The film ends with the couple reunited in London just after de Gaulle has made his famous BBC speech.
More or less all these facts did occur and de Gaulle was indeed devoted to his family. Doubtless their fate did preoccupy him in his first days in London, when he had time to think about them. Philippe de Gaulle, present at the reunion between his mother and father in London in June 1940, tells us that on the occasion he saw them embrace in public for the only time in his life. We should remember that the photographs of de Gaulle and his wife in their house at Berkhampsted in 1942 were taken at the initiative of Churchill. We see husband and wife in various domestic poses. Madame de Gaulle is seen washing up, dusting, playing on the piano (with a portrait of the General visible), holding a flower up adoringly to her startled husband. Although staged and meant to show a happy couple, the de Gaulle we see looks stiff, awkward and ill at ease. No embracing or hand holding here. One should also remember what to de Gaulle said to a French journalist who had made her way to London in 1942. Trying to ignore the chilly reserve de Gaulle emanated, she told him about someone else planning to come to London but who was waiting for his daughter to be released from prison first. De Gaulle replied cuttingly: “the family does not count when the destiny of France is at stake.” No doubt there was an element of bravado in all this – de Gaulle performing de Gaulle as it were – but the icy shyness suggested in this encounter, and confirmed by so many others, is very different from the touchy-feely de Gaulle we are offered in this film. We must not over-humanise the great man!
Gabriel Le Bomin, Director, De Gaulle, France, 2020, 108 min, Vertigo, Les Films de la Baleine, SND Groupe M6, France 2 Cinéma, France 3 Cinéma, Les Productions du Renard
- Note also Jean-Louis Benoit’s play, De Gaulle en mai, performed at a small Paris theatre in 2008 and based on the journals of de Gaulle’s close collaborator Jacques Foccart (de Gaulle played by Jean-Marie Frin).
- 2009: Adieu de Gaulle, adieu (covering de Gaulle’s mysterious visit to Baden-Baden in 1968 (de Gaulle played by Pierre Vernier). 2010: Ce jour-là, tout a changé, l’Appel du 18 juin (de Gaulle played by Michel Vuillermoz); and Je vous ai compris 1958-1962 (de Gaulle played by Patrice Chesnais).