Directed by Ken Russell; produced by Richard Dreyfuss and Judith James
The Dreyfus Affair was a scandal that divided France, bitterly and at times violently, for more than a decade in the 1890s and 1900s, the repercussions of which may not yet have ended. It began when a French Army captain, Alfred Dreyfus, was convicted of treason, having been accused of passing secrets to Germany. The fact that he was a Jew, and that evidence against him was flimsy, caused a rift in French society. Anti-clerical republicans ranged against pro-church monarchists and the nation was in turmoil.
In an effort to calm matters, the army’s general staff assigned Colonel Henri Piquart to inquire into the matter. It was assumed that because he was a regular officer, disciplined and anti-Semitic, the court-martial’s verdict would be upheld. Piquart was astounded to find that the sole piece of proof against Dreyfus was a memorandum so badly forged as to be almost a joke. While Piquart may have disliked Jews, what he disliked even more was injustice. When his indignant report to his superiors was rejected, he began fighting for the truth so unrelentingly that his career suffered - he was banished to the command of an obscure colonial regiment - his personal life was ruined, he was insulted, vilified and had even to fight a duel. But honour was all to Piquart, and nothing would suppress it.
Recently, I reviewed a comedy starring Richard Dreyfuss called Let It Ride. Four years later, he portrayed a very different character in this very different film, showing his versatility and talent. Confusingly, Dreyfuss does not play Dreyfus, but the unforgiving Piquart, and he does it very well. A history lesson, Prisoner of Honor is also a character study, the story of a man who was so devoted to right and justice that he was willing to let his own life be destroyed rather than do the wrong thing. Piquart’s drive for Dreyfus’s vindication is so great that he even has a falling out with the wrongly convicted criminal himself. After ten years, Captain Dreyfus was recalled from his prison cell on Devil’s Island and tried once more. Again found guilty, the establishment decided at last to appease their detractors and granted Dreyfus a pardon. The poor man, content to be removed from his hellish incarceration, accepted this. Piquart did not, because it left Dreyfus still, legally, guilty; his honour remained sullied. One of course sympathies with the victimised captain; the colonel’s unremitting demand for justice is both unreasonable and admirable.
There are other characters here who are equally interesting, though they are given much less time to develop. Ironically, Dreyfus himself, played by Kenneth Colley, is almost incidental to the story. Another person for whom one feels- almost reluctantly - sorry is Peter Firth’s Major Henry. He has a secret and when it is revealed, his desperate disappointment at how he too is betrayed by his superiors - much less expectedly than with Dreyfus - is almost pitiful. A host of excellent and familiar actors, including Peter Vaughan, Brian Blessed, Oliver Reed and Jeremy Kemp, appear in minor roles.
The direction is pretty straightforward; a relief, since the director is the usually flamboyant Ken Russell. Here his style is nearly pedestrian - at least for Russell - but this is a character study and historical drama, not a fantasy horror film (e.g. The Lair of the White Worm) or an adaptation of a D.H. Lawrence novel (eg. Women in Love). Russell tells a story, largely unembellished but intriguing. The writing as well, competent and lean, is not extraordinary.
The draw here is the story - as opposed to the script - and Dreyfuss’s Piquart. The tale is one of treason, sordid betrayal and heroism, the likes of which only real life can make. But Piquart is not a hero for the twenty-first century, with its simple-minded belief that all must be black and white. Like most humans, he comprised both good and bad. An anti-Semite, he became a Jew’s foremost champion; his character would allow no other behaviour. It is clear that he, as much as Captain Dreyfus, was a prisoner of honour. It is good to note, though, that both men were eventually vindicated. Piquart died years later in a riding accident, no doubt urging his horse forward regardless of all obstacles.