Prisoner of Honor (1991)

 “No sensible man would allow himself to be sent to war by a politician.”

prisoner-of-honor1The notorious, monumental Dreyfus Affair occurred in the 19th century and resulted in a scandal that divided France and prefaced WWI. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French army officer was accused of selling secrets to the Germans. Dreyfus was subsequently tried, found guilty and sent to solitary confinement on Devil’s Island. When the film Prisoner of Honor begins, the Dreyfus Affair is over and done with, and the film begins decades later with a British journalist interviewing a Frenchman about this historic case. This interview provides the film’s framework as the film segues back to 1895.

Colonel Picquart (Richard Dreyfuss) is selected head of counter-intelligence for the French army, and General de Boisdeffre (the late great Oliver Reed) asks Picquart to investigate the Dreyfus case and discover Dreyfus’s motivations for treason. Picquart, in common with his fellow officers, tends to chalk up Dreyfus’s actions to the fact he was a Jew, and Picquart begins his investigation with a definite lack of interest. That all changes rapidly when Picquart is faced with the evidence, and he’s clearly shocked to discover that the entire case rested on a note that supposedly matched Dreyfus’s handwriting.

With his interest piqued, Picquart begins an aggressive investigation, and shortly concludes that not only is Dreyfus innocent, but that Major Esterhazy was the guilty man. At this point, Picquart imagines that he can simply correct this injustice, but when his brother officers close ranks, Picquart realizes that the so-called investigation was supposed to be as cursory as the original trial. With mounting pressure to abandon the case, Picquart must take a stand.

While the film is about Dreyfus, the Prisoner of Honor in the title is really Picquart, the hero of this made-for-television film from director Ken Russell. The film makes it clear that Picquart isn’t a Don Quixote impaling himself on the Dreyfus Affair–in fact ironically Piquart dislikes Dreyfus. Picquart’s determined decision to stand by what it morally right makes him the Prisoner of Honor–not Dreyfus. And the film follows the army’s subtle and then not-subtle attempts to silence Picquart. Richard Dreyfus does an excellent convincing job as the man who stands by his beliefs no matter the cost.

While the film does a tremendous job of showing the convoluted political situations within the army, one of the biggest objections I have to the film is its portrayal of Zola. Here Zola is shown as a media hound who parasitically feeds on the Dreyfus case to satisfy his own vanity. In reality, Zola brought international (and public) attention to the case with his inflammatory article . As a result Zola was sued for libel and subsequently sentenced to jail. He fled to England and remained there until 1902 when he deemed it safe to return. Zola’s chimney was subsequently spiked, and he died as result. There is some evidence that Zola was murdered for his involvement in the Dreyfus Affair. While the film wants to promote Picquart as the sole hero, this stance is a disservice to Zola, and Zola must be given credit for his role in The Dreyfus Affair.

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