Director: Raymond Bernard
Screenplay: Raymond Bernard, André Lang
Based on a Novel by: Roland Dorgelès
Starring: Pierre Blanchar, Gabriel Gabrio, Charles Vanel
Running Time: 110 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
I've always been surprised by how few 'true' World War I films there are and by that I mean ones that follow troops in battle and aren't more concerned with something else happening at the same time. There are countless WWII films, with more cropping up year by year, but 'The Great War' is often ignored. Maybe it's the fact that the US weren't quite as heavily involved until the last year (although they still sent a hefty 4.7 million soldiers over) or maybe it's just too far past for modern writers and producers to mine it for inspiration. Whatever the reason, I've always found it a little sad that this horrific conflict gets little cinematic recognition when compared to its 'big brother'.
Last year's centenary of the start of the war brought it back to people's attention though and we saw a lot of TV programmes and web resources cropping up to remind us, although notably not a high profile feature film. The commemoration made we want to track down something to watch though and I realised I had a notable blind spot from the classic movie canon, 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front. I had a copy gathering dust on my overcrowded DVD shelf so finally gave it whirl. Why I'd waited so long I'll never know. I was blown away by how brutal and powerful a film of its age could be.
So, a few months down the line, Eureka announced one of the latest additions to their impeccable Masters of Cinema series would be Wooden Crosses. Charting a new recruit's entry into the European front lines during WWI, the film sounded like the French answer to All Quiet on the Western Front and was originally released only two years later, so I had to see how it compared. Due to this, you'll have to forgive me bringing up the earlier film far too often in my review.
There isn't much more to say about the plot other than it follows one regiment's experiences of the horrors of war, in particular the young soldier Adjudant Gilbert Demachy (Pierre Blanchar). Him and his comrades struggle to survive as they go over the top and are given the task of capturing a key village. Even staying in their dugout isn't safe as the enemy are heard digging under it to place explosives.
Wooden Crosses is every bit as powerful as All Quiet on the Western Front in getting across the brutality of the conflict. The battle scenes are incredibly well staged, not just for the time, but even in comparison to modern war films. Loud and frantic, the spectacular sequences are simply nightmarish. Explosions endlessly surround the troops and the bodies fall thick and fast. The film doesn't shy away from death or injury, characters look suitably dirty, tired and frightened and there are no super human heroics (although Demachy pulls off a couple of feats of bravery). This is a great early example of war as hell.
What Raymond Bernard's film does differently to Lewis Milestone's though is add a little more poetic artistry. As well as some symbolic match cuts and dissolves early on, Bernard has some fantastical shots such as when fallen soldiers walk up a stairway to heaven looming over head as the surviving troops below take part in a meaningless parade. He also repeats the symbolism of the cross throughout the film, including crosses in the background of many shots as well as more blatant uses (the squadron are holed up in a cemetery for a while). I felt he over did this to be honest, providing my only real criticism of the film, but I can't deny his use of the cross provides some striking imagery.
On top of the symbolism and occasional flights of fancy, Bernard also makes use of some more expressionistic cinematic techniques to tell his story. In particular, the lighting is often very low key and high contrast. Great use is made of flares in the film too, casting eerily beautiful moving light across soldiers faces and over dead bodies.
The use of sound is quite groundbreaking too. Bearing in mind this was made in the early days of synchronised sound filmmaking, Bernard does a great job of using the technique to stunning effect. The digging under the dugout I mentioned earlier is a good example. The constant low thud of the pick axe cranks up the tension, which reaches boiling point when it stops and the audience know that means the explosives are being loaded beneath the troops. In the battle scenes, the sheer volume of the explosions is overwhelming too, adding to the panic and horror of it all. This is counteracted by a near silent finale which is perfectly realised.
Although I appreciated the extra level of cinematic technique Bernard used, I did however still slightly prefer All Quiet on the Western Front. Maybe it was because I watched it first and I knew it was made first too, but I found the earlier film slightly more affecting. Milestone's film really hit me in the gut whereas Bernard's moved me, but felt maybe a little heavy in its symbolism and poetics to give the same emotional impact. That said, it's hard to fault the film and I still thought it was a powerful testament to the true price of war. Other than the inevitable surface ageing of the film stock and audio elements, the film doesn't seem dated at all, which can't be said of a lot of the 'gung-ho' war films of the 40's and 50's or beyond. This really stretched the possibilities of the medium at the time to deliver not simple thrills, but a powerful message about the horrors of war and it did so magnificently.
Wooden Crosses is out now in the UK on dual format Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. The print is very clean. It's a little soft, but likely this is due to the source material. The audio seems weak by today's standards with a bit of background hiss apparent during dialogue scenes, but for a film from 1932, it doesn't sound bad at all.
There is an incredible amount of supplementary material included in the set. There is an interview with historian Marc Ferro and film historian Laurent Veray, a short documentary about the restoration, Wooden Crosses: A Sonic Adventure, a documentary exploring early sound design, archival interviews with Roland Dorgelès and Raymond Bernard, some vintage 1914 newsreels, a documentary piece on early 20th century poster artist Adrien Barrère and The Absent Battle, the Omnipresent War and a collection of photography from WWI taken by André Schnellbach who served with Dorgelès in the 39th. There's no commentary, but you can't complain with this many extras on offer.
You also get one of Eureka's usual excellent booklets as part of the package.