This film handout was prepared by Katharine Thornton, August 1996.

I. THE DIRECTOR (1913-19)

René Clément studied architecture and worked as a cameraman before becoming a director. His films are often praised for their strong visual element; they are cinematic cinema. La Bataille du Rail was his first feature film, his previous films were documentaries. One of those, Ceux du Rail (those on the railways) (1942) could be a preparatory study for Bataille. Clément's most well-known and best film is the touching Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games) (1952) about two children who respond to the death and destruction of the Second World War by building a graveyard for animals. It won Best Film at the 1952 Venice Film Festival and the 1953 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Clément's other films about WW2 are: Le Père Tranquille (the quiet father) (1946) about an ordinary man who works in an office but is head of a resistance group; Les Maudits (The Damned) (1947) about the crew of a German submarine; Paris Brûle-t-il? (Is Paris Burning?) (1966) about the liberation of Paris. Clément has no experience of war as a combatant, although he lived through the Second World War in France. Clément's adaptation of Emile Zola's novel L'Assommoir , Gervaise (1956), is the only period film (ie: set in a distant past) he has made. His reputation would probably be greater had he not been overatken by the French 'new wave' film-makers of the 1960s, who dismissed his well-crafted features as still more of the cinéma du papa (old man's films).


The first part of the film is a series of examples of the way the men who worked on and ran the railways were able to resist: their networks and techniques are demonstrated to the audience. We see them smuggle people, or transport documents, or slow down the trains carrying war-related material. At one stage a narrator's voice intervenes to explain what is going on. We also see the consequences of resistance actions: when some men are randomly taken as hostages and shot in reprisal. (We can assume that these events occur in or before 1942, judging from the date at the bottom of a piece of paper held significantly before the camera.)

The second part of the film begins with a coded message heard on Free French radio from London. The message reveals that the allied invasion has begun ('the cat is out of the bag'). The film's narrative becomes more clearly chronological. The railway resisters do everything they can to stop German reinforcements getting to the front. The Germans retaliate. We also see the 'maquis', small armed bands of resisters, in action. Sometimes their participation is more of a hindrance than a help. Ultimately the resistance is victorious and a decorated train takes happy French people through the countryside.


  • Three groups were involved as producers: 'Résistance-Fer' (literally 'iron resistance', the railways resistance organisation) 'Ciné-Union' (the national cinema committee) and the Military section of the National Council of the Resistance.
  • Most of the actors are non-professionals: railway workers play themselves.
  • Consider Bataille as the beginning of a French neo-realist genre that never took off (unlike Italy, with Rossellini). Compare Bataille with Rome: Open City and Paisa.
  • French film historian Susan Hayward describes Bataille as 'the mythic film of the Resistance'. She argues that it 'made possible a post hoc identification with the Resistance - precisely because of its documentary look which privileged no particular railway worker. The French could all become resistance fighters with hindsight.' (French National Cinema (London, 1993), p.190.)


  • Opening titles which remove French action (and responsibility) for the defeat: 'Germany divided France'. Note the opening bars of 'La Marseillaise' (French national anthem) played softly at close of titles
  • Cross-class resistance portrayed: office workers, managers, railway workers, station masters, inspectors, are all involved. Is this an attempt to mute the threat of communist control ater the war by minimising a strictly working class resistance? Perhaps toeing the Gaullist line?
  • Loud, emotional shouting of German officer who condemns sabotage - parody of Hitler's oratorical style?
  • After an office worker is taken hostage in reprisal for resistance, wonderful image of his pen rolling down the page, splattering ink: symbol of the man's about-to-be-shed blood.
  • The (minimal) role of women: we see a barmaid; a female secretary; a wife who tells her husband not to get involved; and, briefly, a young woman in the maquis. (An exciting moment for the feminist historian!)
  • Sympathetic portrayal of German soldiers as ordinary men waiting around for their train to run again. They fill in time by sunbaking, washing their clothes, cooking, while 'Lili Marleen' (famous popular song of the era, composed by Norbert Schultze) is played softly on an accordion.
  • The reference to the STO (Service de Travail Obligatoire) a compulsory labour scheme introduced early in 1943 by the occupiers to force young Frenchmen to work in Germany. Faced with the prospect of forced labour in Germany, many men went into hiding and joined the maquis. An example of this phenomenon is in the second maquis band: the character of the city-bred young man who has never seen a glow-worm before and has 'learnt so much in this past year'.
  • The symbolic death of one member of the maquis: a struggling individual crushed by a German tank; as France was crushed by the armoured divisions in 1940.
  • Use of real documentary footage cut into end of film, especially night bombing raids and the retreating Germans.
  • Where are the Allies? The liberators we see are French. We hear a mention of the Americans and there is a brief glimpse of the Stars and Stripes flying from the victory train. This is in keeping with the Gaullist version of the liberation: that France liberated herself.