La Vache et le prisonnier (1959)
aka: The Cow and I
A film directed by Henri Verneuil

Genre: Comedy / Drama / War

Review published:


La Vache et le prisonnier photo
In 1943, Charles Bailly is an unhappy prisoner-of-war on a farm in Nazi Germany. After two years of captivity, he makes up his mind to escape and return to his hometown of Marseille. His plan is brilliant, daring and completely mad. He will make his way across the country on foot, accompanied by a cow named Marguerite, who will not only provide his passport to freedom but also the milk to sustain him on his arduous journey. After a false start, Bailly makes good progress and finds help from some unexpected quarters. When the time comes, he can hardly bear to separate from Marguerite, but separate they must. Alas, fate has a cruel twist in store for him...
© 2012

Film Review

It is not hard to see why La Vache et le prisonnier is one of the most enduringly popular of Fernandel's films. A moving fable about one man's determined attempt to win his freedom against overwhelming odds, it is a film that has a universal appeal and has lost none of its charm since it was first seen in 1959. In a similar vein to Jean Renoir's La Grande illusion (1937), the film both reminds us of the absurdity of war and shows how easy it is for beings from different nationalities (and even different species) to form an empathic link and help one another, without comprehending each other's language. Whilst nations may fight, individuals are impelled, by their common humanity, to lend mutual support when they can.   Sadly, only dumb animals have the good sense not to go to war with one another...

This film was the first major success for director Henri Verneuil, who would, over the next two decades, deliver a series of box office hits, including Le Clan des Siciliens (1969) and Peur sur la ville (1975). La Vache et le prisonnier was in fact Verneuil's most successful film; it drew an audience of 8.8 million in France, making it the biggest hit at the French box office in 1959. The film was based on the novel Une histoire vraie by Jacques Antoine, who also contributed to the screenplay. As well as being a successful author, Antoine is well-known for his contributions to French radio and television, for which he created and produced a number of popular shows, such as La Chasse aux trésors and Fort Boyard.

La Vache et le prisonnier was Verneuil's ninth and, by far, most popular collaboration with Fernandel; after an inconsequential short film entitled Escale au soleil (1947), they worked together on a string of feature comedies that included Le Boulanger de Valorgue (1953), L'Ennemi public no 1 (1953) and Le Mouton à cinq pattes (1954). Although Fernandel is better known as a comedic actor, towards the end of his career he did gravitate towards more serious roles. In La Vache et le prisonnier he gives what is generally considered one of his best dramatic performances, a genuine character portrayal that is engaging and subtly poignant. Fernandel's scenes with Marguerite the cow are often funny (particularly the one in which the frisky cow goes off and finds herself a boyfriend) but they are also quite stirring; the sequence in which the cow and the prisoner are finally forced to part can hardly fail to bring a lump to the throat.
In 1990, La Vache et le prisonnier became the first black-and-white French film to be subjected to the controversial (some might say heretical) colorisation process which had already been applied to several American films. This was ahead of a screening on the French television channel TF1 which attracted a massive audience. The coloured version of the film is not recommended as it manifestly lacks the atmosphere and lyricism of the original, mainly because Roger Hubert's sumptuous black-and-white photography is disfigured by an ugly, very limited palette of earthy greens and browns. To appreciate the film in all its poetry and visual splendour, it has to be watched in its original monochrome format.

In his final film before his death in 1971, Fernandel shared the limelight with another scene-stealing animal, a horse - in Henri Colpi's Heureux qui comme Ulysse (1970). For those who are anxious to know what became of Marguerite after her happy hour in the spotlight, rest assured that she did not end up being led to the abattoir; Verneuil came to an arrangement with the cow's owner that she should live out her days in comfort. As a rule, the French tend not to eat their film stars.

© James Travers 2000-2012

The above article was written for and should not be reproduced in any medium without the author's permission.

Other recommended comedy/drama/war films from France that you may want to consider are: Costa-Gavras's Section spéciale (1975), Jacques Audiard's Un héros très discret (1996), Denys de La Patellière's Un taxi pour Tobrouk (1960), Henri Verneuil's La Vache et le prisonnier (1959) and Claude Berri's Le Vieil homme et l'enfant (1967).

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Film Credits

  • Director: Henri Verneuil
  • Script: Jacques Antoine (story), Henri Jeanson (dialogue), Jean Manse, Henri Verneuil
  • Photo: Roger Hubert
  • Music: Paul Durand
  • Cast: Fernandel (Charles Bailly), Pierre-Louis (Hauptmann Müller), Ellen Schwiers (Josepha alias 'Marlène'), Ingeborg Schöner (Helga), Heinrich Gretler (Bockmann), Richard Winckler (Hauptmann Rupp), Bernard Musson (Pommier), Maurice Nasil (Bertoux), René Havard (Vicomte Bussière), Albert Rémy (Colinet), Franziska Kinz (La Mere d'Helga), Benno Hoffmann (Un Garde), Gustl Gstettenbaur (Deutscher Soldat), Albert Hehn (Leutnant auf der Brücke), Dieter Hildebrandt (Soldat Allemand dans le camp), Til Kiwe (SS-Offizier 2), Georg Lehn (Un homme Gestapo à Esslingen), Hugo Lindinger (Soldat im Sägewerk), Willy Rösner (Le Pere d'Helga), Emmerich Schrenk (SS-Offizier 1), Willy Schultes (Eisenbahner), Rolf von Nauckhoff (Deutscher Hauptmann auf der Brücke), Marcel Rouzé
  • Country: France / Italy
  • Language: French / German
  • Support: Black and White
  • Runtime: 118 min
  • Aka: The Cow and I

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