In a new movie premiering on cable tonight, star/producer Richard Dreyfuss is asked a simple question by his superior in the French army:
"Why did he do it?" asks the general, referring to the alleged
spying activity of one Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, the central figure in a celebrated turn-of-the century scandal that some historians believe may have contributed to the onset of World War I.
One might ask the same question, however, about Mr. Dreyfuss the actor, and his handsomely mounted but curiously inert film, "Prisoner of Honor." (It premieres at 9 p.m. on the HBO premium service, with repeats Tuesday and Nov. 10, 14, 18, 23 and 27.)
The Dreyfus Affair (the name is pronounced DRAY-fus) apparently consumed the French public, on a scale perhaps similar to the Clarence Thomas nomination controversy. It is suggested the scandal even gave Germany the notion that the French army was ripe for conquer.
But "Prisoner of Honor" projects very little passion, while dressing up Mr. Dreyfuss and some other good actors (Brian Blessed, Peter Firth, Jeremy Kemp) in toy soldier military uniforms and marching them woodenly through a succession of on-location sets.
A mini history lesson: In 1895, Capt. Dreyfus, a Jewish officer during a time when anti-Semitism was the social norm, was convicted on flimsy evidence of sending a note to the German military attache offering to share French army secrets. He
was sent to prison.
"What country does a Jew love?" asks one officer dismissively in the film, when questioned whether the man had any discernible motive.
But over several years of public controversy, it developed that Capt. Dreyfus was innocent, another soldier was guilty and high officers had conspired to cover up the truth to prevent straining public confidence in the army. (Hmmm. Remember Watergate?)
In the film, Mr. Dreyfuss plays the key figure in the drama, Capt. Picquart. He is an ambitious intelligence officer assigned to put the cap on the matter by a post-conviction investigation. Instead, he finds major inconsistencies and, despite a personal disdain for Jews, becomes what would be called in this era a persistent "whistle blower," regardless of the effect on his own career.
"Prisoner of Honor" may work for some viewers as a refresher on a chapter in world history many people do not know. Sadly, however, it never manages to rise above that in dramatic terms.