Producer as Auteur – The Exile is a swashbuckler, written by, produced by, and starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. It was the first American film to be completed by the German-Jewish director, Max Ophuls. It was plainly a vanity project for producer/star Fairbanks in which he played an exiled King (Charles II of England) who, as conceived by Fairbanks the screenwriter, was handy with a sword, irresistable to the ladies, and prone to much athletic leaping about. On this film, Ophuls was a director-for-hire, recommended to Fairbanks by Robert Siodmak, seen by his producer/star, one suspects, as a decorator whose principal task was to make Fairbanks and the settings he performed in look good. Yet within the limits of that task, Fairbanks apparently gave Ophuls a great deal of freedom.
And on that level, The Exile is more than successful. Like so many of Ophuls’s films, The Exile is visually ravishing (the poorly transferred DVD version released by Firecake Entertainment barely does it justice) with emphasis on the erotic aspect of the word “ravishing.” Ophuls didn’t just want to entertain us; his films seduce and ravish the viewer with the ornate beauty of their imagery. In comparison to Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948) or The Reckless Moment (1949), the two most personal and most artistically accomplished films Ophuls made while in America, The Exile is minor, a trifle. But this is Ophuls we’re talking about. So there is still much to admire.
Personal Aspects – In many respects, the film is not at all typical of Ophuls. It is his only swashbuckler. It is the only one of his films I know that features a male protagonist. Yet it is filled with personal touches. For one thing, Ophuls was himself an exile from his home country who had previously made films in Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands, and who would conclude his wandering years making films in France. The fact that Max himself was constantly in motion is reflected in the most notable aspect of his visual style, the moving camera (“A shot that doesn’t call for tracks/Is agony for poor dear Max”). Ophuls’s preference for long takes with a continually moving camera is not just a stylistic device – it is an expression of his predominating theme, the transitory nature of relationships and life in general.
Thus, the film’s opening shot is a long take, lasting nearly a minute, in which the moving camera follows a page as he crosses a spacious multi-levelled rustic hideout with straw on the floor, around a winding staircase, to open a door and admit a wounded follower of the exiled King who brings “news from home.” Later, in one of the film’s most lyrical long takes, the incognito King courts a pretty Dutch girl (Paule Croset) on a moving barge, the camera following alongside the barge as the girl and the King take turns poling it down a river while tree branches and other visual impediments pass by in the foreground.
Puritanism vs. L’amour – One of The Exile‘s themes that surely engaged Ophuls was the central conflict between the film’s villains, the Puritan “Roundheads” who sought to prevent the restoration of the Monarchy, and the life-loving, l’amour-loving King. Although Ophuls is mainly known for his camera movements, in The Exile he achieves some delightful effects by cross-cutting between the King and his enemies. For example, in one shot we see the black-clad Col. Ingram of the Roundheads (Henry Daniell) declaring, “Even now I vow that he and his evil minions are scheming revenge … planning death and destruction,” from which we cut to a shot of the incognito King and his Dutch girlfriend working together on her farm, blissfully unaware of anything but sunlight and love. Ophuls repeats this pattern, cutting between the death-obsessed Puritans and the life-loving couple more than once.
2 Women – Ophuls adored women. Before there was Lola Montes (Ophuls’s 1955 masterpiece of color and ‘scope), there was Maria Montez (below) who, in The Exile, plays the promiscuous, aristocratic foil to Paule Croset’s simple farm girl. Arriving at the farm and its inn in an elegant carriage, she instantly recognizes the exiled King — they had been lovers 5 years earlier. Croset fears a rival, but as it turns out, Montez has no intention of spoiling things, and actually helps bring the King and the farm girl back together. Typically for Ophuls, he does not favor the worldly aristocrat over the naive peasant — his camera loves them both.
Windmills – The Exile‘s big concluding set piece is a fencing duel between Fairbanks and Daniell that takes place inside and around a turning windmill. A windmill is an intensely cinematic location, and Ophuls takes full advantage of it, craning up, down, and around the mill with its interior staircase, turning blades, and fatefully cranking gears. The Exile‘s windmill duel compares favorably with two great windmill sequences that preceded it — the final confrontation between man and monster in James Whale’s Frankenstein, and the windmill sequence in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent designed by William Cameron Menzies.
The Qualified “Happy Ending” – Not at all typical for the swashbuckling genre, but consistent with many of Ophuls’s other films, Ophuls gives us a “happy ending” that is, at best, qualified. See, for example, the similarly qualified endings of The Reckless Moment and Lola Montes. In addition to the conflict between puritanical Roundheads and life-loving Monarchists, The Exile, like The Reckless Moment or Lola Montes, is about the conflict between a person’s private life and his/her public role. (For example, Joan Bennett’s public role in The Reckless Moment as “Mother.”) The King is never happier than when he is living incognito working a farm with his peasant girlfriend. Eventually however, historical duty calls, and the King must assume the throne that has long awaited him. Ophuls intercuts shots of the newly coronated King surrounded by his followers with a shot of the Dutch girl standing in her farmhouse, alone (the empty bed representing both her grief and the King’s loss).
The King is ultimately as trapped (or Caught – to borrow the title of another Ophuls film) in his public identity as Lola Montes was in hers.