The Olive Trees of Justice: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, by David Bax
If you’re not familiar with director James Blue–perfectly understandable as this is his only narrative feature, though he was later Oscar-nominated for a 1968 documentary short–the name most likely to leap out at you from the opening titles of the newly restored 1962 film The Olive Trees of Justice is that of composer Maurice Jarre (if we’re measuring by Oscars, he’s got nine nominations and three wins under his belt). Jarre’s work here supplements Blue’s dialectic docudrama with an elevating touch of ironic longing and nostalgia.
It’s no surprise to learn that Blue’s career otherwise consisted of documentary work. The Olive Trees of Justice is often at its most compelling when training its eye on the realities of the physical locations in which it’s filming; namely, Algeria during the country’s War of Independence. Jean (Pierre Prothon), the Algerian-born son of French farm owners, has returned to his hometown to be there for his father (Jean Pélégri, the writer of the novel on which the film is based) in his final days. But he also finds himself witness to things like the French military defusing a bomb left on a street corner by, presumably, the Liberation Front.
But The Olive Trees of Justice is not merely a document of a guerrilla war. It’s also a document of life during wartime. Blue is as patient and attentive to the bomb-defusing sequence as he is to the method by which Pierre’s old friend prepares him a cup of tea when he drops by for a visit, still observing niceties and etiquette as the world changes around him.
Pierre, having grown up and moved to France, has returned to his old country to find himself more of an outsider than he’s ever been. Or, to be more accurate, more aware of the outsider status he always had as a Frenchman but never had to confront so plainly. That, plus his father’s looming death, is why he keeps returning to memories of childhood. Blue doesn’t explicate why Pierre remembers the specific things he does but there’s a insisted-upon idyll to the early flashbacks–young Pierre playing and riding bicycles with the local Arab boys his own age–that begins to corrode as Pierre’s recollections turn to the relations between his father and the men who worked on his farm. If we see ourselves as taking Pierre’s point of view in these remembrances, we can almost feel him struggle to maintain the rosy picture he has of his childhood. But the fireworks his father used to set off to celebrate Bastille Day are too reminiscent of the gunshots and explosions of Algeria’s own revolutionary fight in the film’s present.
The Olive Trees of Justice is not a polemic or a single-minded screed about the evils of colonialism. Still, it’s hard not to be convinced by what it depicts, a psychological portrait of a man gradually realizing the fallacy of the “one of the good ones” myth.