Perrochon Jean-Pierre Marrielle Captain Moinard Ticky Holgado Lion Feuchtwanger Rudiger Vogler The General Philippe Noiret Mary Jane Cooper Kristin Scott-Thomas Lt. Boisset Francois Borleand
With: Jean-Marie Winling, Francois Perrot, Eric. Petitjean.
“Les Milles” is a heroic but underwhelming WWII escape-and-rescue tale with an ironic twist. Gallic and Euro B.O. should be middling to fair for this heartening but curiously flat account of a little-known, some-what Schindler-esque act of courage. Fests and issue-oriented TV programmers will be drawn to the pic.
Grounded in under-publicized historic facts, story centers on a French military officer who single-handedly requisitions a train to transport hundreds of German refugees to neutral territory rather than hand them over to certain death under the terms of the freshly signed Franco-German armistice of June 1940 . Pic is competently crafted and moderately suspenseful, but less than rousing.
In the period leading up to the German occupation of France, persecuted Germans and Austrians who fled to Gaul were rounded up by the French police and interned in camps. One such, a former factory compound not far from Marseilles called Les Milles, played host to an impressive array of refugees, including artists Max Ernst and Hans Belmer, along with noteworthy novelists, musicians, poets, translators, architects, the inventor of cortisone and a Nobel Prize winner.
Summoned from civilian life to direct Les Milles, reserve officer Charles Perrochon (Jean-Pierre Marielle) — a WWI vet whose one remaining lung sometimes leaves him gasping for breath — is a debonair, no-nonsense fellow. While not uncultured, Perrochon is far more impressed to have a champion soccer player in his camp than a batch of top-flight intellectuals. A Boston Globe reporter (Kristin Scott-Thomas) is the only hint that the outside world knows or cares about the distinguished — and less distinguished — refugees crowded into Les Milles.
With Belgium and Holland having already delivered such prisoners into Nazi hands, the refugees petition Perrochon to allow them to strike out on their own. The dutiful Perrochon insists they’re in no danger and that France will do the right thing by them.
But when, in June 1940, Perrochon discovers that his cavalier superiors (including a cynical general played with customary panache by Philippe Noiret) have no qualms about handing over “the runaway krauts” to the Nazis they fled, Perrochon commandeers a train, herds the wary Germans aboard, arranges for a ship to ferry them to safety in Casablanca and even dispatches a down payment to cover their clandestine passage.
The train’s passengers face many obstacles on their deadline sensitive 72 -hour journey. The unforeseen denouement is a bittersweet footnote to history.
Filmmakers have the raw material for a great story, but execution is too bland and reverent for it to break through as a memorable pic.