The idea was to show them in parts of France where the Germans were losing ground in order to help the French people appreciate the role of the Resistance.
1944. World War II is coming to an end, but with continuous military efforts to defeat Germans there is also still a strong need for propaganda films.
Alfred Hitchcock, already past military age and carrying so much fat that he'd be completely useless in combat, did not see much of the war first-hand outside of watching Blitz destroying his home city with the rest of Londoners.
After signing with Selznick and moving to the USA, he became even more isolated from these dramatic events. Feeling the need to do something, he engaged in making movies that would serve the cause. Bon Voyage was one of those.
Its main protagonist is John Dougall, a British RAF pilot whose plane was shot down in German-occupied France. Now trying to run away from danger, he encounters a helpful Polish person named Stefan Godowski, who is running as well. Since they are in the same situation, they decide to combine forces.
Dougall seems a bit green, so if he'd be left to himself, he'd probably never make it, but Godowski turns out to be his guardian angel, sorting things out left and right. As it turns out, the pilot has no clue that this entire time he is no more than a pawn on a military chessboard. The revelation comes from his superior, which provides extra context to Dougall's escape story that changes the meaning of things quite a bit.
The film was shot in Welwyn Studios. The original idea came from Arthur Calder-Marshall, a small-time maker of documentary movies most active in the second half of 1940s. That idea got converted into fully-functional script by two people.
First one was J.O.C. Orton, mostly known for co-writing a script for Oh, Mr. Porter! (IMDb). Interestingly, Bon Voyage is his very last film.
The second is Angus MacPhail, a screenwriter and an ex-film critic. With him, it's quite the opposite. The film marked the beginning of brief credited cooperation between the two, but they had known each other since The Lodger, when MacPhail was circling its movie set hoping to find a way into the industry.
Even though he came and went, Angus' name was one of only few who managed to accompany Alfred for decades. On the other hand, he was never in the director's inner circle of friends and his overall input wasn't as big as the time frame would suggest.
Satisfied with MacPhail's input to Bon Voyage, Hitch recruited him for his three next Hollywood productions: Spellbound, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Wrong Man. The last two especially bear a visible resemblance to their first official common venture.
The main part is played by John Blythe, an actor with a long list of credits, but very few quality roles. He is overacting a bit in this movie, but it sits well with the character he is playing - a naive and enthusiastic young service man.
The picture starts with information that French people living in UK contributed to this movie. 'Contributed' is a light word here - outside of Blythe, entire cast is uncredited because they are all French people. To be more precise, they are from Molière Players, a group composed of actors who ran away from war and formed a theatrical entity on a British soil.
Giving their names could make it easy for the Nazis to persecute their families in German-occupied France in revenge, so they vowed to remain anonymous.
What strikes quickly after beginning to watch the movie is how carefully the plot has been weaved. It is obvious that a person of Hitchcock's statue was involved and that his impact on the final shape of the film has been critical.
The story is complicated for such a short format (26 minutes), but it doesn't confuse the viewer. The language is a slight obstruction, as most dialogues are in French, which makes it necessary to read subtitles for most of us, but that can cause some to pause once or twice at best.
Most interesting is the idea of introducing two narratives, first Blythe's and then his superior's. The latter completely changes the meaning of things contained in the former. From today's perspective, this is nothing new, but back in 1944 it was groundbreaking. Hitchcock really took this job seriously, even to the point of using quality ideas you would expect a director to save for his Hollywood creations.
Whoever liked Hitchcock's war movies will not be disappointed here, as Bon Voyage is also of high quality. There are no moments when it's visible that the crew is taking shortcuts. Plenty of characters, places and events are introduced in these 26 minutes.
Another Hitch's touch is injecting into this film one of his favorite subjects - an ordinary man is put in circumstances far beyond his comprehension. As opposed to his usual, here the protagonist has it easy though. He doesn't have to prove his innocence, he doesn't have to produce an investigation of any sorts.
He is just a dummy, and lucky one at that! If he wouldn't be chosen to selected as a probe-slash-messenger, would he be able to escape to live and tell the tale?
Some historical realism is nice to see here. The methods depicted in this film were actually used by the Germans. It's nice that the Gestapo agent imitates a Polish person. During the World War 2, Poland was the only country that didn't officially cooperate with Germans in any way and ordinary Polish folk were also exceptionally stubborn to compromise their morality in exchange for safety from persecution.
Posing as a Polish person was a great way to gain extra trust and credibility among the Resistance fighters, so getting it into the story is a great way to make the picture more credible, which is especially important for a propaganda film.
As for the bad things, and there are few of them here as well... when Blythe's superior starts telling him about how things really went, it sounds as if his spies had invisibility cloaks and followed the fake Godowski absolutely everywhere and heard everything he said and did. How would they ever be able to get all that information without being noticed? The Vichy spy's death is a bit over-dramatic too.
Bon Voyage's biggest failure is that it is another Hitchcock film that was very coldly recepted by the British authorities, which closed its doors for decades. It was never shown to the public until decades later when it was commercially released (even though it was submitted through official channels and scheduled for public release at first). And at that point, the war was already over and there was no longer a need for this kind of picture.
The story sounds similar to another Hitchcock production made one year later: German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, but Bon Voyage at least got completed before being locked up in some dark archive room.
The reason for government's disapproval is somewhat different. GCCFC suffered from under-developed concept and terrifying scenes. Here, there is no brutality except for two bloodless killings, and the narrative is very well-polished. But there is an even bigger problem.
The story is so much fun and cinematic that watching this film after years, it's too easy to forget an important matter - the film has zero propaganda value! The point that it is trying to make is so unclear that without knowing the Hitchcock quote on top of this article we could debate about it for hours and still not come out with a probable suspect.
In the end, the plot, the tension, the curiosity stand at the center and ooze entertainment values, with any educational matters relegated into the corner. Hitch got so much into his game here that he completely forgot that this is not another of his movies, but a different kind of beast and he needs a different approach to make it work. Therefore, the British government's discontent was very much in place. What they got had zero value for them.
The good news is that lack of this Alfred movie in French public space did not result in Germans winning the World War 2, and we have a quality Hitchcock experience coming from an unusual direction to watch.
And it really stands out when compared with the average propaganda picture. Because it is what it is, being a fan of propaganda or war movies is not necessary to have some quality time with it. This short adventure is a recommended addition to Hitchcock's catalog.
The film's most recent DVD release is by Milestone Films, together with another Hitchcock propaganda picture from the same year titled Aventure Malgache. It can be bought on Amazon here.