Prisoner of Honor (1991)

 

Director:  Ken Russell

Cast:  Richard Dreyfuss (Col. Picquart), Oliver Reed (Gen. de Boisdeffre), Peter Firth (Maj. Henry), Jeremy Kemp (Gen. de Pellieux), Brian Blessed (Gen. Gonse), Peter Vaughan (Gen. Mercier), Kenneth Colley (Capt. Dreyfus), Catherine Neilson (Eloise), Lindsay Anderson (War Minister), Christopher Ashley (Orator #1), Shauna Baird (Henry's wife), David Bamford (Boy prostitute),  Duncan Bell (Army doctor), John Bennett (Magistrate), John Cater (New War Minister).

HBO film

 

Good movie.  This is a different perspective on the Dreyfus Trial.  It sees the travesty of justice from the perspective of Colonel Picquart (Richard Dreyfuss), who was chief of counter-intelligence.  It is Picquart who discovers that Dreyfus was innocent, Esterhazy was guilty and that the army had blamed and convicted the wrong man of the crime of espionage.  And he would soon find out that the army was involved in a huge cover-up, including the manufacturing of evidence. 

The movie is also different in that it stresses the anti-Semitism in France with many short scenes of prejudice in the country. 

Picquart was a man of mixed virtues and vices.  In his favor, he stood up for the truth against the entire Army establishment, even to the point of his going to jail for 12 months.  On the other hand, he was somewhat anti-Semitic.  (He didn't even like Dreyfus, who at one time was his student.)  In addition, he was having an affair with a married woman.  And Picquart was inflexible ("a man of too much honor" the movie says).  An example of this is that he refused to shake the hand of Dreyfus when the man chose to accept a compromise that would keep him from having to be sent back to Devil's Island (where he surely would have died).  Picquart took the position that Dreyfus should be willing to give his life for the sake of his honor.  (But, of course, it wasn't Picquart that would have to face death in solitary confinement on Devil's Island.)

In these Dreyfus movies, they let the Army and the conservatives argue that one man should be sacrificed for the country.  But they don't give the liberal reply that if no one can trust the institutions of the society, then they are destroyed anyway.  One cannot build a decent society on lies and cover-ups. 

It is interesting how the Army officers felt that it was their "duty" to their country to lie, cover-up and fabricate evidence.  Did it ever occur to the Army that it was their duty to be honest and forthright?  Ultimately one does a disservice to the country by lying and covering-up evidence of wrong-doing.  But once the conservative institutions of France had backed the conviction of Dreyfus, there was no going back for them.  They stubbornly and persistently reaffirmed their own lies  -- they even believed their own lies. 

Richard Dreyfuss gives a good performance as Picquart, the man of mixed virtues.  (One little complaint: I found his accent chosen for the film irritating.)

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 


Historical Background:

 

A French spy in the German embassy discovers a handwritten schedule, received by Major Max von Schwartzkoppen, German military attaché in Paris.  The schedule lists secret French documents. The French army, at this time the stronghold of monarchists and Catholics and permeated by anti-Semitism, attempts to lay the blame on Captain Dreyfus, a wealthy Alsatian Jew, while the press raises accusations of Jewish treason. Dreyfus was tried by a French court-martial, convicted, and sentenced to exile and solitary confinement at Devils Island, off the coast of French Guiana. (See movie "Papillion".)

1896  --  The ensuing controversy divides Frenchmen into two irreconcilable factions: royalist, militarist, and nationalist elements versus republican, socialist, and anticlerical elements. Col. Georges Picquart, chief of intelligence, discovers that Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, who was deep in debt, is the real author of the schedule. The army silences Picquart.

1897  --  Dreyfus's brother, Mathieu, makes the same discovery. Pressure increases to reopen the case.

1898  -- Esterhazy is tried by a court-martial, but acquitted in minutes.  Writer Zola publishes an open letter (J'accuse) to the president of the French republic, Félix Faure, accusing the judges of having followed an army order to acquit Esterhazy. Zola is tried for libel and sentenced to jail, but escapes to England.

Anti-Dreyfusards = anti-Semite Édouard Drumont; Paul Déroulède, who founded a patriotic league; and Maurice Barrès.

Pro-Dreyfus faction  = Georges Clemenceau, Jean Jaurès, René Waldeck-Rousseau, Anatole France, Charles Péguy, and Joseph Reinach.

1898 --  discovery that much of the evidence against Dreyfus forged by Colonel Henry of army intelligence. Henry commits suicide and Esterhazy flees to England.

1899  --  after Waldeck-Rousseau becomes premier, court of appeals orders new court-martial, but military court again finds Dreyfus guilty.  The army was just not ready to admit its errors.  Dreyfus gets a pardon from President Émile Loubet.

1905 --  partly as result of anticlerical attitudes brought out by the Dreyfus affair, church and state separated in France.

1906 --  the supreme court of appeals exonerates Dreyfus, who is reinstated as a major and decorated with the Legion of Honor.

 

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