Abel Gance took the world cinema scene by storm with this passionate and compelling portrait of the First World War. Although today overshadowed by the fame of his later work (such as “Napoleon”), in the context of this blog it stands out as a century-old example of cinematic innovation and boldness.
The move begins with a credit sequence, built of actuality footage (see below for production details), silhouettes of an officer with a whistle, and the words “J’ACCUSE” spelled out by uniformed men, standing on a field in formation. This is followed by typical introductions to the lead players with intertitles followed by brief close-ups of the actors, but remarkably it begins by showing us the director/screenwriter himself, something not even the egotistical D.W. Griffith had done. Interestingly, the actors frequently are introduced as being affiliated with one or another theater, no doubt legitimating them in the eyes of a more sophisticated audience.
The movie proper opens on a carefree summer festival in 1914 Provence, depicting an idealized time of peace and plenty. We meet Jean Diaz (Romuald Joube), a poet, who lives with his beloved mother (Mancini), but pines for the girl next door, Edith (Maryse Dauvray), who is now married to François Laurin (Séverin-Mars). His mother warns him to forget a married woman, but the two exchange glances from the windows of their homes. The festivities outside are interrupted by a bad omen when someone spots an owl, which becomes a symbol for all of the difficulties to come. We now see the inside of the Larin household, where François has a deer carcass draped over the table and is getting drunk, teasing the dog with its blood. Edith watches in horror, then turns away, provoking François. He closes the shades so that she can no longer gaze at Jean, but is sent to bed by his father-in-law (Maxime Desjardins), an old soldier of 1870 who harbors revanchist dreams of regaining Alsace-Lorraine. After watching the night’s festivities, Jean puts his mother to bed by reading one of his poems, the “Ode to the Sun,” which we see depicted by means of a montage. This tender domestic scene is intercut with images of François drunkenly abusing his wife in their bedroom.
Jean and Edith meet secretly by the lake the next day, but this is interrupted by the arrival of François with his hunting rifle. He kills a bird only a few feet away from them to make his point, then takes his wife home. Jean restrains his anger as he sees Edith cower in fear of him. It is August 2, and soon news of the war sweeps through the village. People young and old are thrilled and confused by the news. Jean and François receive their draft numbers; François has to go one month before Jean, meaning that Edith will be alone and available to him for that time. François comes home on leave and finds Edith reading love letters from Jean, prompting him to send Edith to her relatives in Alsace-Lorraine to separate the lovers. This has dire consequences when Edith disappears shortly afterward, reportedly a captive of the Germans. Meanwhile, her father and a group of old veterans push flags around a table, pretending to win the war from their armchairs.
Jean now enlists early, hoping to avenge himself on the Germans, but unlike François, who is a common soldier, he receives officer’s training and becomes a lieutenant. Due to one of those incredible coincidences that happen in movies, he is assigned to François’ unit. François refuses to stand up for, or even acknowledge, the new officer, actions which should get him court martialed, but presumably Jean’s sense of guilt over the affair with Edith prevents him from disciplining him. Eventually, Jean is ordered to send “his best man” on a mission to sabotage the German trench, and decides to go himself because he cannot bring himself to issue the order to François. His commander commends his bravery while at the same time admonishing him for taking a risk that was meant for a more expendable soldier. Jean and François now begin to become friends, as Jean comes to realize that François, in his way, loves Edith as much as he does, and François gains respect for Jean as a soldier. This is paralleled by an increasing friendship between Jean’s mother and François’ father-in-law on the home front.
The years go by and still the war does not end. In 1918, Jean is suffering the effects of a gas attack, but refuses to accept medical leave until receiving word that his mother is very sick and may be dying (neither of them will admit their illness to the other). Jean finally returns home to see her, and she requests that he read his “Ode to the Sun” once more. He does, and we see all the images from the first reading, now tinged with our awareness of the brutality Jean has since experienced. She dies as he reads the last line. Suddenly, Edith reappears! She has finally made her way home, near starvation, with a child in her arms. She tells the story of how she was gang-raped by German soldiers in Alsace-Lorraine, and begs Jean to protect her daughter, Angèle (Angèle Guys), who as a half-German is seen by the French as an enemy. She is certain that François will kill her if he find out that she exists. François does find out, when he returns on leave, but he too has been changed by the War. Rather than exact revenge, all he does is demand that Jean return with him to the front, so that both may take revenge on Germany, and so that he will know that nothing is going on between Edith and Jean. Jean agrees, and Edith’s father also leaves to seek revenge.
The third part of the movie opens with our heroes at the front, surrounded by men lying in foxholes, the dead indistinguishable from the living until they move. A new battle is ordered, and the men grimly line up for inspection by the spirit of Le Gaulois (the primal image of France). Images of the men in the trenches are contrasted with images of children at home playing at the war. Angèle is lined up for a phony firing squad and made to wear a German helmet, at a foreigner. She throws the helmet into the fireplace. We see the men at the front, reading and writing their last letters home (some letters are shown in intertitles, quoted from actual war letters). Jean asks François to carry his last letters to Edith, in case he doesn’t make it back from the battle. He has written dozens of them, which can be sent back once a month, to convince her he is still alive. The battle rages and we see that Jean has gone quite insane, and François insists he be sent back. We see French soldiers fighting the battle of Saint-Mihiel alongside the United States Army, with huge artillery cannon, devastated villages, and images of soldiers struggling across no-man’s-land, often with a superimposed image of a skeleton dancing above them.
François is wounded and dies in a hospital, but not before passing Jean’s letters along to a doctor. Edith receives them, and reads each to an adoring Angèle. She is the more shocked then when a thoroughly shell-shocked Jean walks in the door one evening, bearded and raving. He insists on taking down details on the behavior of each of the local villagers from Edith, as though he were compiling a report on civilian morale for the army. He invites each one to come to Edith’s home the next evening. He tells them all of his vision: from the graves of the dead, soldiers arise and gather in a great cohort that marches through the land, back to their homes. Hundreds of real soldiers were used in this sequence, marching and limping back to the home front to accuse the civilians for whom they have been fighting. Using the details he has wrung from Edith, Jean now confronts them with their complacency, their profiteering, their licentious behavior in the absence of the men who have fought at the front. Jean challenges the villagers to say whether they have been worthy of the men’s sacrifices, and they watch in horror as their dead family and friends appear on the threshold. Finally, he relents, seeming to say that most have been worthy of the soldiers’ sacrifice; only a few have been unworthy. The soldiers return to their rest, and Jean goes back to his mother’s house. There he finds a book of his own poems which he tears up in disgust, until one of them, his Ode to the Sun, drives him to denounce the sun for its complicity in the crimes of war. As the sunlight fades from the room, Jean dies.
The technical aspects and cinematography of this film blew me away. Not just in comparison to the films of the 19-teens, or to the century films I’ve covered into the early twenties, but compared to much later silent films, this movie is a visual masterpiece. Gance was clearly ahead of his times, in more ways than one. We see more camera movement and creative angles than pretty much anything else I’ve reviewed so far. More than that, we get lighting effects that are decidedly bold for the time, including shots done in silhouette, low light situations in which it seems like actual darkness as opposed to over-lit scenes in which the actors behave as though it were dark, and backlit scenes which produce halos and other effects on the character. Moreover, at the same time as Vertov, Eisenstein and others are first developing their theories in the USSR, we see full-on use of montage to juxtapose ideas and feeling with actions on the screen. An entire poem, the “Ode to the Sun,” is portrayed using montage, more successfully than almost any visual poem I’ve ever seen, and even more amazingly, the meaning of the same sequence of images changes between the first time and the second time we see them. It’s almost like an alien from the future came to Earth to teach us how to make movies (and modern film makers could really do with some lessons from Gance).
The story doesn’t quite hold up as well, but a lot has transpired since 1919, and this movie is very much a product of the powerful emotions of the time and place. Gance was originally hired to make movies for the French Army, at a time when the war was still in progress, and he was able to use actual war footage in this (arguably anti-war) movie. But the battle scenes aren’t really as compelling as some of the shots he was able to take using soldiers on leave to create the end sequence. One might argue that the climax of the film is actually the first cinematic portrayal of a Zombie Apocalypse, although in the end the zombies go away without actually harming anyone. To the degree that the story seemed weaker than the imagery to me, it was in part this sense of things being resolved too easily. The title of the film is “I Accuse!” but only a handful of war profiteers and loose women actually get accused – society as a whole is pretty much exonerated. The other conflicts in the film, although poignant, are also a bit to tidy in their conclusions. François, introduced to us as a beast, comes to terms with his wife being in love with another man. Angèle, despite being taunted by other children for being half-German, is largely accepted by everyone, and raised in a loving environment.
This isn’t entirely bad, however. Both Jean and François actually do grow and change in the course of the story, which is after all what narrative is all about. They come to understand one another through their shared experiences at the front, and here Gance may be suggesting that the trenches can still be a unifying force for the nation, and thus something positive can be drawn from them. Portraying Angèle as human, a child deserving of love, may have been an intentional message to French citizens who were horrified at the illegitimate children the war had brought home. Throughout, Gance’s intentions appear noble, but it seems that at times he couldn’t quite get the story to be as sophisticated as the imagery. Audiences at the time were bound to be less critical, since these were still open wounds for the viewers, and maybe the easy resolutions were necessary to keep them from rejecting the harsh glare of Gance’s accusations. Today, with distance from that war, we can still revel in the mastery of cinema this movie represents.
Director: Abel Gance
Starring: Romuald Joube, Maryse Dauvray, Séverin-Mars, Maxime Desjardins, Angèle Guys
Run Time: 2 Hrs, 46 Min
You can watch it for free: here (with music, intertitles in French).