Mud and Blood

WOODEN CROSSES (CROIX DES BOIS) still impresses. Raymond Bernard’s big WWI film — the French equivalent of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT — has many of the expected elements, but quite a few unexpected ones.

There are the double exposures that show phantom soldiers trudging off to heaven, which seem to have been a staple of WWI cinema since Gance’s J’ACCUSE (see also ALL QUIET, or Rowland V Lee’s BARBED WIRE), but they’re really the only obvious element of sentimentality. The battles are colossal, easily matching anything in Hollywood films on the subject, and with the explosions going off in the sky, they surpass PATHS OF GLORY in sense of scale and spectacle.

But the more surprising elements make all the difference. Bernard, as in his enormous LES MISERABLES, lets the camera run handheld through the action, evoking the panic, flurry and chaos of battle, not only long before SAVING PRIVATE RYAN but long before the WWII documentaries of John Huston which inspired that look. There must surely be WWI footage with a similar look, but I haven’t seen it. The stuff you see in war docs from that era always looks very stable. It would be amazing if Bernard latched onto the effect purely as a stylistic choice, rather than to mimic documentaries.

The narrative is extremely loose, driven by a series of situations, some short (picking the lice out of uniforms), some protracted (the anxious wait as Germans dig under the trench to plant a mine and blow everybody to blazes — they can’t leave unless ordered) which butt up against one another without the usual cartilaginous connections. And the ending is so devastatingly horrible you can’t quite believe it. The simplicity of ALL QUIET’s famous ending comes with poetic melancholy, but that’s largely obscured here by the sheer grueling brutality. Bernard’s intent is to make the audience actually feel gutshot. Strong stuff.

Eclipse Series 4: Raymond Bernard (Wooden Crosses / Les Miserables) (The Criterion Collection)


4 Responses to “Mud and Blood”

  1. I still vividly remember watching the film on Iranian TV (only two films each week – Thursday night and Friday afternoon), when usually the announcer gave an over-the-top statement about the films shown, and for “Les croix de bois” he said “it was so real and sad that at the time of its initial release a veteran committed suicide, after seeing the film.”

    Years later I learned that probably he had found that remark from Georges Sadoul’s film guide. (again, the first film guide I ever had!)

    Have you seen the Hawks’ remake, “The Road to Glory” (1936)? Great film, though owing too much to Bernard.

  2. A terrific film — I remember the sensation of being pummelled by that long, long sequence of artillery fire, where you keep thinking it’ll end only for another shell to fall.

    I wondered whether that tense underground scene inspired Clouzot in The Wages of Fear — Charles Vanel being present in both films.

  3. The Hawks movie isn’t so much a remake as a recycling: Zanuck bought the film, not to distribute it, but to use the battle footage in his own productions. So you can actually see the stars of Bernard’s film amongst it.

    Charles Vanel sometimes seems to be present in ALL films, or all French films anyway. Two versions of Les Miserables, thirty years apart…

  4. Vanel had a ridiculously long career all right; I was just enjoying his performance in Melville’s L’Ainé des Ferchaux. What was the second Miserables after the Bernard? There are so many versions I can’t keep track!

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