Monday, March 28, 2011


This is probably one of the first antiwar movies of the sound era, along with 1930's ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, though perhaps because this is a French film, it has not gotten nearly the acclaim that the earlier Hollywood film has. Set in WWI, it follows Gilbert, a young soldier (Pierre Blanchar), as he becomes a member of a war-weary squadron; he is introduced to the men in a casual, almost light-hearted sequence, though their partying stops cold when a string of dead soldiers is carried by. The beautifully and creatively shot film alternates between showing the tedious waiting around for something to happen, the short skirmishes that can occur suddenly, and the longer battles that always result in the death of one or more of the men. The narrative arc isn't as important as the individual episodes (worrying about the Germans digging and planting mines right underneath the French encampments, awareness of the irony of defending a graveyard, and making it through a ten-day siege) or even individual moments: the singing of the Ave Maria over the moaning of injured and dying men in a church being used as a makeshift hospital; a mortally wounded man cursing his philandering wife, then changing his mind with his final breaths; a dying man in the middle of a battleground no-man's-land pitifully screaming for water. In the end, there is only the promise of death and ever more wooden crosses sprouting from the ground. The director, Raymond Bernard, only made a handful of sound films, but this one deserves its rediscovery as a classic (available as part of a set from Criterion's Eclipse label). Some of the battle scenes were used in John Ford's THE WORLD MOVES ON. [DVD]

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