In 1919 French director Abel Gance released his anti-war epic ‘J’accuse’. Having fought in the early days of the conflict, before being declared medically unfit, he knew first-hand what it was like to have death picking at his seams. His film was shot during the dying days of the conflict in 1918, indeed many soldiers soon to become fodder for the ravenous meat grinding conflict acted as extras while on leave from the front lines.
As a Great War Film I don’t think anything else can beat it. Gance was an innovator and used a wide range of camera tricks and effects that were ground-breaking for the time. But on top of the tricks he was a story teller and an artist. There’s a classic love triangle (like all other silent films!), but there’s also a strong anti-war sentiment and an underlying misanthropic theme. Read my review here for the full story. The 1919 version, the original, was Gance’s reaction to the Great War. It’s angry, filled with hate for the warmongers and those who didn’t fight. It’s also poetic, beautiful and an ode to camaraderie and the French ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
And then, in the lead up to the 2nd World War, with the war machinery of Europe mobilising in readiness for the impending conflict, Gance couldn’t hold his tongue any longer. My film today is his 1938 remake of his 1919 classic and my first thought as I click play is that they are very different beasts. The film starts in the dying days of the conflict whereas the first film began in the days leading up to the war and the love triangle stuff from the earlier film is an unimportant side-line. This version is focussed more sharply on the futility of the Great War and more importantly how little has been learned from that massive bloodletting as the belligerents once more flex their muscles.
The main character, Jean Diaz, carries the guilt of his survival heavily on his shoulders. He made promises to his now dead comrades that he wouldn’t allow war, any war, to happen in the future. Having based himself near to the front line and set himself up as a glass blower he goes about inventing some super strong glass that will (for some not fully explained reason) make future wars impossible, this is possibly the only bit of the film I think’s a bit ropey. Sadly the French government use the glass for more aggressive, offensive purposes (again, not fully explained). As he awakens, from a madness bought about by some shrapnel in his head, he rails against humanity and its’ warring ways.
This is a film of endings…from the very start. (***WARNING: SPOILER ALERT***) We begin with the deaths of pretty much all the characters we’ve got to know in the opening minutes of the film. Then it turns out the day they all die is Armistice Day. Next Diaz tells his love interest (the triangle point from the first film, Edith) that they can never be together. Diaz himself ceases to ‘Be’ for a while as a shrapnel piece in his head shifts causing him to become mute and lifeless. Diaz goes to Verdun and raises the dead of the Great War. They rise from their graves and march on the warmongering humans. Diaz is eventually killed by a mob for raising the dead soldiers, for attempting to save humanity. The dead soldiers gather him into their arms and return with him to Verdun, leaving the living to deal with their fate.
This ending, the final 15 minutes or so of the film is what I was waiting for. The lead up is good, the slow downward spiral of Diaz into madness is angry and vivid but this last bit is where Gance goes into overdrive. It becomes a horror film, a zombie film I suppose, to be precise. There are actors in ghoulish masks and skeleton suits like in the first film but there are also the real disfigured victims of the Great War. There’s close ups of staring, straight faced men with horrific facial injuries. One man in particular sticks in my mind. His watery eyes tearing up as he stares into the camera. This is powerful stuff.
Compared to Gance’s 1919 version this film is a lot more gritty and angry. Whereas the 1919 version was melancholy and despairing this one is actively hate-filled and screaming. There’s a dedication right at the start of the film that really lays Gance’s stance on a plate for all to see. ‘This film is dedicated to the dead of the war of tomorrow’. The editing is unlike anything else you’ll film in the era. There’s a heavy un-apologetic use of stock footage, grim death in the trenches, countless guns firing endless shells, at times with La Marseillaise playing over the top.
There’s more of an obvious comparison to GW Pabst’s ‘Westfront 1918’ (1930) than Gance’s 1919 classic. Pabst’s film points its’ finger at ‘War’ as a concept making everyone caught up in it a victim. Gance, on the other hand, spits bile in the face of humanity laying the blame squarely at its feet. The poetry of the 1919 film is lost behind the sledgehammer blows of this newer version.
So, yes, I recommend it. But whereas the 1919 version will always be one of the best Great War Films this one is just maybe a bit too rough around the edges. This may be more to do with the poor quality of the copy I got my hands on. The version I watched was a dodgy 80’s VHS copy with some shonky editing and low sound quality. I hope someone somewhere sees a value in giving it a spell in re-hab and getting it back to its original hostile glory.