by Joseph Harriss
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018. Pp. x, 220.
Illus., filmography, notes, biblio., index. $45.00. ISBN: 1476676275
An Actor Who Went to War
The most notable French actor of his day, Jean Gabin (1904-1976), is well known for his many film roles, and the multitude of actresses that he romanced, most famously Marlene Dietrich, but his service with the Free French during World War II is largely overlooked. While journalist and France-watcher Harriss’s biography deals primarily with Gabin’s family and film career, about a quarter of the book covers his WWII activities.
Born into a family with ties to the opera and theatre, Gabin was already a seasoned performer when he was called up for military service in 1924. He spent two years in the Fusiliers marins – the naval infantry – before being discharged as a reservist. Over the following years he performed in musical comedy and operettas, and broke into film in 1928. Over the next decade he starred in a number of notable films, particularly La Bandera, an outstanding fill little known in the U.S., and the celebrated The Grand Illusion, a picture which Hitler despised.
Called up for World War II, he rejoined the Fusiliers marins, but was then discharged upon the fall of France, having seen little action. After a short time, he fled to the United States, where Hollywood had been after for years. He made a few films in the U.S., include one Free French propaganda picture.
Gabin returned to active duty with the Fusiliers marins in 1943. He served as gunner on a convoy escort, and then volunteered for duty as a tank commander in Régiment blindé de fusiliers-marins, an anti-tank regiment that was part of Philippe Leclerc’s famous French 2nd Armored Division. He entered combat in August of 1944, took part in the liberation of Paris, the campaign in Alsace, the liberation of Strasbourg, and the final drive into Germany.
Postwar, Gabin returned to acting, and made several notable films, but his wartime experiences clearly affected him deeply. Harriss points out that although before the war Gabin had turned in his excellent performances in several notable war films, he never again appeared in one.
Jean Gabin is a good read for those with an interest in film, France in the interwar years, and the Resistance.
Note: Jean Gabin is also available in several e-editions.
StrateyPage Reviews are done in cooperation with the New York Military Affairs Symposium (www.nymas.org)