In 1938, Paris has become a haven for refugees trying to escape growing Nazi power. Charles Boyer (Gaslight, The Buccaneer) plays Dr. Ravic, a German surgeon practicing medicine illegally in France. Always one step away from being discovered and sent back to Germany, he seeks revenge on his enemy, a Nazi officer (Charles Laughton),
who tortured him. One night, he saves Joan Madou, played by Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca, Notorious), a woman cast adrift after the death of her lover. He finds her a job singing at a nightclub, and eventually they begin an affair, only to be separated when Ravic is found out and deported. Lewis Milestone’s (All Quiet on the Western Front) adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel is an atmospheric tale of romance and revenge set among the rising tensions of a continent at the brink of war.
During its planning period in 1946, 'Arch of Triumph' seemed destined to become a monumental triumph for the fledgling Enterprise Pictures, one of several independent production companies that sprang up in Hollywood during the years immediately following World War II. The can't-miss film boasted a powerhouse cast (led by Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Charles Laughton, and Louis Calhern), a dramatic, meaningful story adapted from a bestselling novel by acclaimed author Erich Maria Remarque, and direction by Lewis Milestone, the man who brought Remarque's most lauded work, 'All Quiet on the Western Front,' to the screen in 1930 and won an Oscar for it. Yet despite such enviable attributes, 'Arch of Triumph' fell victim to massive rewrites, a lengthy shooting schedule, endless editing, and a budget that ballooned to more than $5 million (making the troubled production the most expensive Hollywood film since the silent version of 'Ben-Hur'). By the time the picture finally premiered in 1948, any lingering buzz had turned negative, and what was once regarded as a potential masterpiece limped into theaters, where it quietly died a swift and merciful death.
Time has not been kind to 'Arch of Triumph,' and what was bad in 1948 is worse 66 years later. Plodding, incoherent, overwrought, and self-important, this deadly dull film is almost unwatchable, even for classics aficionados like myself who revere the movie's stars and director. The striking noir photography can't mask the rambling yet choppy narrative, unfocused direction, dour performances, and relentlessly dark mood that sabotage the tale at every turn and make viewing an arduous experience. Shot and acted with the utmost seriousness and filled with meaningful pronouncements, such as "History has no special accommodations for lovers," 'Arch of Triumph' is shockingly devoid of any real substance, despite all the hand-wringing, hysterical tears, and sober declarations of affection and political integrity that permeate the script.
Boyer plays Ravic, a German refugee (with a French accent, no less!) and the usually virtuous Bergman portrays Joan, a jaded sometime streetwalker of questionable origin who harbors mysterious motives. The two meet by chance and fall in love in Paris in the days immediately preceding the German invasion, but this is a far cry from 'Casablanca.' Ravic is obsessed with exacting revenge on the sadistic Nazi (Laughton) who tortured him and murdered his former girlfriend, while the troubled Joan wanders around in a haze, trying to forget her dead lover, find security, and forge a new life. It's all very turgid, melodramatic, and...did I say this already?...unendurably sluggish.
Even the cast didn't care for the project. Laughton termed 'Arch of Triumph' "a tragedy relieved by heavy doses of gloom and good, honest tedium," while Boyer reportedly hated Remarque's novel and thought it preposterous he was asked to play not just a German, but a good German! "I would not know how to begin to act such a part," he said at the time. Yet according to his biographer, Larry Swindell, Boyer finally accepted "a role he didn't like in a story he didn't trust." Bergman, who won her first Best Actress Oscar playing opposite Boyer in the 1944 psychological thriller 'Gaslight,' also regretted her decision to appear in the film, confiding to Boyer midway through shooting, "I am afraid I may have made a terrible mistake." Years later, she wrote in her autobiography, "'Arch of Triumph' was one of the few films in my life that I felt 'wrong' about."
Realizing the story didn't work, Milestone and his team continually revamped it, adding more and more material, then cutting it later on. The film's initial edit ran a whopping 224 minutes - longer than 'Gone With the Wind' - before it was trimmed and reshaped into the jumbled mess it is today. Boyer quipped to a reporter that the editing improved 'Arch of Triumph,' but only slightly: "It was terrible for four hours, but now it is only terrible for two hours." Indicative of the slipshod way in which the movie was handled during its post-production period, actress Ruth Warrick's name appears prominently in the opening credits, yet her entire part was deleted from the final print. (Supposedly, she portrayed the second female lead, so that's a huge chunk of celluloid that was lopped off.) It's no wonder the film was a box office disaster of titanic proportions, bankrupting Enterprise Pictures, which dissolved shortly after the movie's release.
Though examining the plight of refugees and the moral confusion that defined the period directly prior to World War II is an admirable topic for a film, the misguided execution of 'Arch of Triumph' drags it into the gutter along with its depraved characters. Milestone relies on process shots to denote his Paris and Riviera locations, lending the production a cheap look that belies its massive budget, and there's little cohesion to the story's episodic structure. (The credits tell us Remarque's novel was serialized in Collier's Magazine, and the movie very much feels as if it's a collection of isolated installments without a strong continuing thread.) Just as Paris is cast against type - depicted here not as the City of Light, but rather a purgatory of impending doom, plagued by constant rain, murky shadows, and an aura of despair - so too is Bergman as a woman of ill repute. The actress is undeniably sexy in a natural, fresh-faced way, but when she tries to play sultry, it comes off as insincere. She's also not very believable as a nightclub singer (the dubbing of her one number is uncomfortable, to say the least), and her emotional histrionics grow tiresome over time. Bergman is never "bad" (to even intimate such a thing is tantamount to cinematic treason), but this has to be one of her most disjointed and ill-conceived performances.
Laughton, who only has a few brief scenes, makes a cartoon Nazi, but Boyer manages to somehow file a solid portrayal, despite his refusal to embrace his character's German heritage. Appropriately intense, with his prominent forehead vein in a constant full-throttle throb, Boyer anchors the film and keeps it from careening completely off course. Without him, one can only imagine what a train wreck 'Arch of Triumph' would be.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Arch of Triumph' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The print for 'Arch of Triumph' hails from the UCLA Film Archives, but that doesn't mean it's in very good shape. Though the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Olive Films features solid clarity much of the time, contrast and grain levels wildly fluctuate. Some scenes benefit from a natural grain structure and stark contrast, while others look washed out and noisy. At its best, the source material boasts strong, inky blacks, crisp whites, and a nicely varied gray scale that brings out the details in such background elements as wallpaper, curtains, and falling rain. Such positives, however, are often nullified by all the specks, marks, blotches, and scratches that constantly plague the image. Crush is quite evident, too, especially in long shots. The close-ups of Bergman and Boyer look appropriately glamorous, but they can't mask all the negative aspects on display. While I always champion the release of classic films on Blu-ray, inferior transfers don't do a niche market like this one any favors. Good transfers can't improve bad movies, but they can make the viewing experience more enjoyable.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track could also use a makeover. Though the string-laden music score possesses fine presence and a full-bodied sound, plenty of age-related imperfections consistently rear their ugly heads. Frequent crackles, underlying surface noise, and a bit of hiss often intrude, calling attention to the movie's vintage nature. No instances of distortion occur, thanks to a fairly wide dynamic scale, but there's little sonic oomph to punch up the dreary proceedings on screen. Atmospherics, such as the ever-present rain, are well rendered, and all the dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend. While I understand not every film merits a comprehensive restoration, it's disappointing to see a Blu-ray release in such an obvious state of disrepair.
There are no supplements whatsoever on this disc, not even a trailer.
Dull, dreary, and ultimately depressing, 'Arch of Triumph' is a cross to bear for any viewer brave - or foolish - enough to undertake it. Even the considerable talents of Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and Charles Laughton can't begin to salvage this meandering, unfocused mess of a motion picture from Academy Award-winning director Lewis Milestone. Bogged down by too much atmosphere, artifice, and apathy, 'Arch of Triumph' is anything but, and remains one of the most colossal failures of Hollywood's Golden Age. Olive Films' Blu-ray presentation is as slipshod as the film, featuring a scarred transfer, mediocre audio, and no extras whatsoever. Even the most diehard classic movie aficionados should steer clear of this agonizing debacle.