Monday, May 26, 2014

Wooden Crosses (1932)

Director: Raymond Bernard                            Writer: Raymond Bernard & André Lang
Art Direction: Jean Perrier                              Cinematography: Jules Kruger
Starring: Pierre Blanchar, Gabriel Gabrio, Charles Vanel and Raymond Aimos

In the tradition of films like All Quiet on the Western Front and Journey’s End comes Raymond Bernard’s moving tribute to those lost in World War One. Wooden Crosses (Les croix de bois) is based on the novel by Frenchman Roland Dorgelés that exposes the harsh realities of life in the trenches in a similar way as Erich Maria Remarque’s more famous work. But where the German novel dealt specifically with the idea of the young men being deceived by their elders, this is a more realistic look at the conflict. Rather than the attrition that happens to the specific group of four German soldiers fighting together, the French film is a more egalitarian look at the whole company of men and the losses they face. Bernard used many actual veterans and so there is a heightened sense of verisimilitude that pervades the picture. And it’s this realism on which the film’s reputation lies. There are no happy endings in war.

The film begins with the declaration of war and general mobilization in France. Pierre Blanchar is a new recruit who is introduced to the men of his unit by the gregarious corporal, Charles Vanel. They are the usual cross-section of society, men who have come from all over the country to serve in a war that they believe can’t last more than a few months. Gabriel Gabrio, the vocal one of the group, settles Blanchar in and gets him to buy the men wine. But their celebration is cut short at the sight of a dead soldier being carried to the cemetery. After a march to the front lines the men are installed in the trenches and the company sergeant, Marcel Delaître, keeps everyone in line. On Blanchar’s first mission, a scouting party up to enemy lines, one of the group, Raymond Cordy, is killed by their own artillery firing short, but they take it in stride. When the company returns to their billet, however, they become unnerved when Blanchar hears the Germans digging a mineshaft beneath them and the officers won’t let them move. When they fear the explosives are being planted, the men begin to remember their lives before the war.

As with the party earlier, when the men are finally relieved on the front they mercifully leave the trench to their replacements, but before they are more than a few hundred yards off the Germans blow the explosives in the mine, killing all fifteen of the new men. Once in the rear there is a celebration of relief as they get to eat real food, clean up and read letters from home. Back on the front lines for a big push by the French, the unit is finally going over the top and Blanchar gets his first real taste of the bloodbath of The Great War. The battle footage, as the company attempts to take away a small village from the Germans, is some of the most realistic I’ve ever seen in a film from that period. The hand-held camera shots combined with the stationary shots give a real documentary feel to the ten-day battle. Appropriately, the French eventually find themselves defending a cemetery, and some of the deaths there are the most harrowing I’ve seen on film.

The quality of the direction is immediately obvious. And there are distinctly French touches, such as the double-exposure parade of ghost soldiers from both sides with their wooden crosses over their shoulders. What makes the film distinct from others of the period is the de-emphasis of character. The company of actors that the audience follows is made up of types rather than specific people. This has a distancing effect, true, but that doesn’t seem to diminish the impact of the film in the slightest. I also have a feeling that it is probably a bit easier to follow the cast members in the original French than it is with English subtitles. Director Raymond Bernard worked during a very brief period when French filmmakers were confident enough to compete directly with Hollywood, and they produced some exceptional films including Bernard’s version of Les Miserables two years later. Wooden Crosses may never achieve the popularity of All Quiet on the Western Front but it is every bit its equal, is a masterful anti-war film that definitely honors all of those who lost their lives in that conflict.

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