Tuesday, July 11, 2006

"Truth is on the March"

A Movie Review

The best picture Oscar winner for 1937, The Life of Emile Zola is the movie that inspired the Laurie Holden character in Frank Darabont's The Majestic to become a lawyer. While Zola himself was never a lawyer he was a crusader for justice, a muckraking author in 19th century France he was one of the best loved and most hated men of his time. Played in the film by Paul Muni, who won an oscar for his performance, Zola is the type of dedicated eccentric who makes for great entertainment (and could easily serve as the basis for a TV detective).

The first half hour of the film contains a severely abridged biography of Zola over about a 30 year period, the rest of the film (which runs just under two hours), is dedicated to the famous Dreyfus affiar. The Dreyfus affair is an incident in which honest and hardworking Capt. Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) was used as a scapegoat for a massive intelligence leak in the French armys general staff, presumably just because he was Jewish. A few years after Dreyfus had been sent to languish on 'Devils Island' the Army chief of intelligence came upon new evidence that cleared the captain and identified the real culprit. However fearing the damage this revelation might inflict upon the reputation of the general staff, and the glory of the army, the officer to uncover this information ( I think he was played by Henry O'Neil) was silenced and the real offender cleared.

Zola who by the time of these events was an old man, was at first reluctantly drug into Dreyfus defense by the convicts wife (Gale Sondergaard). Emile however would eventually became such a champion of the wrongly accused officer that he would allow himself to go on trail for 'publicly liabling' the general staff, in order to clear his name. Zola would eventually face prison time for his actions, but fled into exile in England (despite a strong distaste for any cold climate) where he continued to lobby for Dreyfus through his writings, something which ultamilty proved successful. The court room scenes in this drama are stirring and Muni expertly delivers a couple great Zola monologues. A largely forgotten (for a best picture winner) classic film about a largely forgotten great man, this movie is certenly worth seeing. The films message about the dangers of overly secretive military justice, and the damages that can be done when any organization thinks it can do no wrong, couldn't be more timely. Zola's wife is played here by Gloria Holden, an actress best known for playing Draculas daughter in the movie of the same name.


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