It’s in the nature of pretty much every Great War Film to give you a swift kick in the guts at some point. After all, War is a fickle business and the fates of War spare no emotion as they mete out death and destruction. And so this is mirrored on screen as the fates of movie lore dispense suffering swiftly and with arbitrary glee. We wince as something bad happens to a protagonist. Whether it’s a bullet through the flesh or an official letter from the front with the terrible news of a loved ones death, the result is an eye watering moment of empathy and compassion from us viewers.
In terms of sheer weight of gut kicks my film today probably packs more per cinematic foot of celluloid than any other. ‘La Grande Guerra’ (1959) is an Italian Great War Film from the Dino De Laurentiis stable. Dino is a chap I’ve happened upon before during my journey through the history of Great War films having reviewed ‘Fraulein Doktor‘ (1969). Without going back over that in too much detail I can say that that particular film was a singular piece of work without fanfare that didn’t rely upon stereotypes or borrowed plot lines to make its point. I think it’s fair to say that I feel very much the same about my film today.
‘La Grande Guerra’ is the story of two lazy, lying and cheating ne’er do wells who meet during mobilisation and then wend their way through the war one lie and cheat at a time. They are anti-heroes I suppose, but in another way they are how I imagine the vast majority of combatants to have actually behaved. They are survivors at their core and who cares how much flair and heroics goes into the process of survival. Staying alive is a victory by itself, probably the only one worth anything in the long run.
Now, I’m not much of an expert on Italian cinema. I’ve tried and failed to make it through a couple of Fellini films. The narcissism of ‘Eight and a Half’ in particular turned me off double quick. I made it through ‘Salo, or the Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom’ purely because I refused to give up on it (I suffer from an inability to censor myself) I struggled and failed to make it through ‘Life is Beautiful’ where I found the comedy far too physical/slapstick for my taste. And today I struggled too for the first little bit until I got into the pace and rhythm of the film and then it all started to make sense.
Like ‘Life is Beautiful’ the comedy here is quite broad in places, bordering on slapstick. If you’ve read my review of the Charlie Chaplin film ‘Shoulders Arms’ you’ll know this is a major turn off for me. But let’s not forget, this is a Great War Film and just when I’m about to roll my eyes as someone falls on their arse the story suddenly stiffens and gives you an earnest slap across the chops. There’s a bit where a nice guy, a family man is killed and our protagonists are accosted soon after by the dead chaps’ wife. They can’t force themselves to tell her the bad news. They take a letter from her and promise to give it to him the next time they see him.
The overall feel of the movie is a strange one for me. The slapstick, slightly jokey feel of the film fits the cast and storyline perfectly but it’s just so different to anything I’ve ever seen. Director Mario Monicelli was a leading light in the ‘Commedia all’Italiana’ movement and these slightly farcical and broad comedy stylings are what it was all about. But then it’s also quite squarely grounded by its war time subject matter and the rolling, creeping momentum of the conflict as if thumps towards them one exploding shell at a time. The death and destruction helps pull the film together and without it we’d be off with the fairies somewhere.
By the three quarter point in most Great War Films I usually have a long list of tropes ticked off. Someone will have stuck their head over the top and had it instantly shot off, there will be at least one moaning and slowly expiring compatriot lying within earshot out in no man’s land, a bastard General will have ordered his men to do something suicidal. But not today this film has been written with an aversion to the obvious, none of the usual hackneyed stereotypes are on display.
***Spoiler*** All in all this wasn’t a film I was holding out high hopes for after watching the first ten or so minutes but then it really turned itself around. Maybe it was me that did the turning. I felt for the two main characters by the end even though I disliked them both a great deal as well. They kind of repent at the end in so much as one of them commits an act of bravery and the other confesses his cowardice before they are both killed. Their bodies look as sad and hopeless as those of the bravest heroes. And that, I think, it’s the point for me of the whole film. They just wanted to make it through, anyway they could. Just like everybody else.
Even though this isn’t the most authentic or natural telling of a Great War story it is perhaps one of the most honest. No-one seemed to enjoy their status as part of a killing machine and the desire to run away from it all seemed ever-present. I really enjoyed this film and would recommend you, dear reader, to stick at it if you fancy giving it a go. It may take you a while to get into it, but once you do you’ll be left with something you’ll remember for a long time.