Fictionalized account of the life of famed French author Emile Zola. As portrayed in the film, he was a penniless writer sharing an apartment in Paris with painter Paul Cezanne when he finally wrote a best-seller, Nana. He has always had difficulty holding onto a job as he is quite outspoken, being warned on several occasions by the public prosecutor that he risks charges if he does not temper his writings. The bulk of the film deals with his involvement in the case of Captain Alfred Dreyfus who was falsely convicted of giving secret military information to the Germans and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devils Island. Antisemitism played an important role in the real-life case but is hardly mentioned in the film. Even after the military found definitive evidence that Dreyfus was innocent, the army decided to cover it up rather than face the scandal of having arbitrarily convicted the wrong man. Zola's famous letter, J'Accuse (I Accuse), led to his own trial for libel where he was ...Written by
Paul Muni's finest moment in the film is probably the famous six minute courtroom speech. He had to do multiple takes of this crucial scene. Upon completion, he received a standing ovation from the cast and crew. See more »
The lettering on the door to Clemenceau's office at the newspaper misspells his first name "George" instead of the correct French spelling, "Georges". See more »
At this solemn moment, in the presence of this tribunal, which is the representative of human justice, before France, before the whole world, I swear that Dreyfus is innocent! By all that I have won, by all that I have written to spread the spirit of France, I swear that he is innocent. May all that melt away; may my name perish if Dreyfus be not innocent. He is innocent.
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This well-crafted film is a worthwhile memorial to Émile Zola, one of the finest writers of his era, and one who deserves to be better-known today outside of his own country. It seems likely that Zola, a naturalistic writer who always used lifelike, genuine characters who had both strengths and weaknesses, would probably have been satisfied with the way he is portrayed by Paul Muni and by the screenplay. Zola is shown not as a flawless hero or as a larger-than-life icon, but as a real person with a talent for writing, who was willing to struggle both to establish himself and to remain true to his principles.
The movie makes a good selection of events from Zola's life, looking both at his earlier years, when he was struggling to establish himself, and at his later years, when as a respected member of society he had to fight his own reluctance to remain true to his ideals. The supporting cast have smaller parts, but they generally do quite well. Vladimir Sokoloff has a couple of nice scenes as Cézanne, and his interactions with Muni are quite helpful in defining the main character, especially as he changes once attaining personal success. Joseph Schildkraut makes good use of his scenes as Dreyfus.
Zola's lifetime was also an interesting and often tumultuous period in France's own history, and the movie provides at least a small taste of that.
There was, for example, even more to the Dreyfus situation than is shown here, but it and other historical events are shown mainly as they involved Zola himself - otherwise, to do justice to the events in themselves, the movie would have had to be several times as long. There's plenty here as it is to make it worthwhile, both as a good drama and as a believable portrait of Zola.
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