In the Past, they Did Things Differently (or Did they?)

By James Leahy

The death of Stanley Kubrick reminds me of a story I heard forty years ago, when I was a student. Peter and I were in the same college. He used to spend most of the vac in Paris. His father was at the British Embassy, possibly Naval Attaché. One day a journalist Peter was friendly with took him out of Paris on a trip. They ended up about twenty minutes inside Belgium, at a cinema. The film was Paths of Glory, loosely based on the wide-spread mutinies that paralysed the French army in 1917. It was, of course, banned in France. That night members of the French ex-servicemen’s organisation came across the border, and trashed the cinema in the middle of the screening.

lage-dor-luis-bunuel.jpgL’Age d’or, 1930. One of the images that caused a riot.

Such militancy was in tradition of the French right. In 1930, after Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or had played for six days at Studio 28, to full houses, groups of the Jeunesses Patriotiques (Patriotic Youth) and Camelots du Roi (the Barrow Boys of the King, which was the street-fighting wing of the Catholic Monarchist group Action Française) stormed the cinema, smashing chairs, and slashing the paintings of a surrealist exhibition in the foyer. The cinema was then closed, and the film banned by Jean Chiappe, chief of the Paris police, a Corsican who had once been considered by Abel Gance for the role of Napoléon.

At the end of his Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) Buñuel alludes to the riots that followed Chiappe’s dismissal from office in February 1934. These led to several deaths, and the various fascist groups involved seemed on the verge of overthrowing democratic government in France. However, they also provided the impetus for the formation of the Popular Front of Socialists, Radicals and Communists which came to power as a result of the 1936 elections, despite the fact their leader, Léon Blum had not been fit to campaign for several months. He was in hospital, victim of the heroic activities of the self-styled “Barrow Boys” (who hated him probably more because he was Jewish than because he was a socialist). He’d only been saved from lynching by a group of construction workers on a nearby building-site.

That year, a collective of filmmakers under Renoir’s supervision made La Vie est à nous, a propaganda film for the French Communist Party’s electoral campaign. It does show a political street fight, but one involving only the rank and file. It was not till after May 1968 that this film was shown publicly. As, previously, screenings had been in private, to activists, supporters and trade unionists, it had not been submitted to the censorship for a visa. Thus Bertolucci’s visual reference to it in The Conformist is a sign of the times in which his film was made, not when it was set.

paths-of-glory-stanley-kubrick.jpgPaths of Glory, 1957. Kirk Douglas and Adolphe Menjou.

Buñuel (in his autobiography My Last Breath) says L’Age d’Or was banned until 1980, when it opened in New York. When I lived in Chicago, it was common for film societies to announce a visit from a well-known collector or archivist. Usually he or she would bring along “something special”, concealed in a mundane brief-case. Often, it was L’Age d’Or; occasionally, and extraordinarily, it was Gustav Machaty’s Extase, featuring no more than a famous bare back horse-ride by a naked and youthful Hedy Lamarr!

The British film-maker Thorold Dickinson told me that, when he pioneered the teaching of film studies at the Slade, part of University College London, a screening of L’Age d’Or generated almost as much heat as those first screenings at Studio 28! A vitriolic correspondence attacking such screenings was waged throughout the College. Fortunately Thorold had covered his back by arranging for Sir Roland Penrose, a British expert on surrealism, to introduce the film. I used to think, remembering how Gaston Modot secures his release from arrest by presenting a special diplomatic passport, this represented an unnecessary kow-towing to the British academic establishment. Now I think it was a great surrealist act.

Whereas Action Française had been particularly angered by attacks on the Church, including a shot featuring regalia that might be used in the Eucharist, thirty years later British academic bureaucrats seemed to have been most upset by shots of Lya Lys sitting on the lavatory, then flushing it. I showed the film throughout the eighties to students of Art History at University College. No-one got excited about it; for many students, it was just another object they were required to study. The only person who seemed to respond directly to its surrealist rhetoric was a Muslim film-maker friend from North Ghana. After sitting in the class, he expressed surprise about the vehemence of the film’s attitude towards Christianity.

James Leahy is a screen-writer, and member of the Vertigo editorial board