Lewis Milestone’s Arch of Triumph has all the elements of a great film, but they never quite coalesce. It’s based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, the writer of All Quiet on the Western Front (which was director Milestone’s greatest film success). It stars the patrician Charles Boyer, the beautiful Ingrid Bergman, and the grotesque Charles Laughton, all of whom are well cast. And its setting — Paris in 1939 — is atmospheric. The city was still a refuge for people fleeing the Nazis, but dark clouds were gathering over France, and everyone knew it.
The review of the film in the May 10, 1948, issue of Time called it an “outstanding misfire,” and that’s as good a description as any. Why? At a little more than two hours, is the movie too long? Is it too short? (The rough cut ran about four hours.)
I could go on and on with this kind of equivocation. Is the film too melodramatic? Not melodramatic enough? And so on. Suffice it to say that the film had a budget of $5 million, but doesn’t look nearly that expensive, and that it began filming in 1946 but didn’t make it to movie theaters until 1948.
Boyer plays a Central European medical doctor named Ravic who doesn’t exist on paper. He is in Paris without a passport, and if he’s caught he’ll be deported … or worse. (It is ironic but not disconcertingly dissonant to watch Boyer, the archetypal Frenchman, play a refugee in Paris.)
One night Ravic meets a despondent young woman named Joan Madou (Bergman), standing on a bridge, possibly contemplating suicide. They embark on a love affair that is as doomed as it is long-winded; they leave Paris on holiday, they return, Ravic is caught by the police, Joan attaches herself to another man, Ravic returns to Paris, etc.
For the most part, Arch of Triumph is an overlong, soapy melodrama. Every time Charles Laughton is on screen, however, it feels like a thriller. Laughton plays Ivon Haake, the Nazi officer who tortured and interrogated Ravic and murdered Ravic’s former lover. Ravic has vowed to avenge her death, and the scenes in which he stalks Haake through the nighttime streets of Paris generate the most excitement in the film, and lead to an exciting and violent conclusion (although the violence as originally written in the script had to be toned down for the Breen Office).
After Ravic’s arrest at about the midpoint of the film, his fellow refugee, the White Russian “Col.” Boris Morosov (Louis Calhern), tells Joan, “History has no special accommodations for lovers.”
It’s this sense of the great weight of history bearing down on people’s lives that is my most lasting impression of the film. Arch of Triumph is a much less hopeful film than the similarly themed Casablanca, but its dour tone suits the proceedings well. I certainly didn’t hate Arch of Triumph, and for the most part I liked it. There’s just the sense that something’s missing from the overall experience when the credits roll.