Given its focus on refugees fleeing fascism and others living on the edge, the title of Lewis Milestone’s Arch of Triumph is grimly ironic. Based on a serialized novel by Erich Maria Remarque (whose All Quiet on the Western Front was the basis for Milestone’s most famous film), there is nothing triumphant about the lives of its characters or the pre-war Paris that they inhabit. The ironies pile up so fast that it is difficult to have any reaction more positive than a melancholy fatalism.
The first of the film’s ironies is probably not intentional, however. The main character, Dr. Ravic (Charles Boyer), an Austrian refugee from the Nazis, scrapes out a living in Paris without documentation and in constant fear of deportation. The irony is that Boyer is the only French actor in the film! The rest of the characters are played by Americans (with the exception of Ingrid Bergman, as his lover Joan Madou and Charles Laughton as the villain, Ivon Haake). Nonetheless, Milestone and his technicians do a good job of creating a morose, drenched collection of people trying to enjoy themselves before the cataclysm they (or at least the filmmakers shooting ten years later) know is coming.
For all of the hindsight, however, Triumph’s gloom is neither moralizing nor facile. No doubt thanks to Remarque’s novel, the characters and milieu are observed with a sympathetic but wide-eyed sophistication. The screenplay, by Milestone and Harry Brown, features finely textured dialog amidst shambolic storytelling that offers bits of business and unexpected plot threads that often are left unresolved. Ravic’s neighbors in the refugee boarding house or some of his former patients that he has helped in various circumstances are introduced solely in walk-ons with no story purpose, for example. Or characters that normally might have one line of exposition to move things forward, like the porter in Madou’s hotel, are lingered over inordinately. More importantly Haake, after being introduced in a wildly Expressionistic flashback that demonstrates his sadism, barely figures in the rest of the action. His reappearance giving Ravic his chance for vengeance feels almost like an afterthought.
The real center of the story is the on-and-off again romance between Ravic and Madou. No doubt trying to build on Bergman’s popularity in the similarly themed Casablanca, as well as reuniting the stars of Gaslight, the relationship between the two characters is almost too realistic because Ravic and Madou can be maddeningly selfish, obtuse and passive. As a result, Triumph is less witty or immediately enjoyable than Casablanca but it possesses a deeper sense of human behavior and potential. The ultimate irony is that Triumph succeeds with the tough tasks of recreating a time and place and characterizing two difficult people, but fails where Hollywood usually succeeds, creating a romance that conquers misfortune to end happily. For that very reason, Arch of Triumph deserves attention as an unusually grownup film from Hollywood.