J'ACCUSE! (Abel Gance, 1919, France, 100m, BW)
Cast: Marise Dauvray, Romuald Joube, Maxime Desjardins, Severin-Mars, Mancini
Director: Abel Gance
Running Time: 150 min.
France's innovative film pioneer Abel Gance had already served briefly in World War I, but he enlisted again so he could film hair-raising footage of soldiers under fire. He used the shots in this compelling anti-war epic, which originally ran 14 reels (it was cut down to ten for release in the U.S., which unfortunately damaged its continuity). Marie Lazare (Marise Dauvray) is forced by her father (Maxime des Jardins) to marry the much-older Francois Laurin (Severin-Mars), even though she's in love with Jean Diaz, a poet (Romuald Joube). The jealous Laurin goes wild at the idea that his young wife may have betrayed him. When the World War breaks out, he goes to the front.
Diaz, a pacifist, stays home until Marie is captured by the Germans. Then he enlists and winds up being in command over Laurin. Over the course of four years, the two men become friends. Diaz gets trench fever and is sent home. Marie returns with a baby -- she was raped by several of her captors and does not know which one is the baby's father. When Laurin comes home, he mistakenly believes that the child is Diaz's. After he is convinced he was wrong, he goes back to his regiment, and is killed in the fighting. Diaz also returns to battle and is wounded. He comes home, but he has lost his mind. He has a vision in which the dead return from their graves to see if their loved ones are worthy of their sacrifice. He dies, leaving Marie alone with her child. Gance would create a masterful remake of this film in 1937.
Like the last feature length silent movie I've seen (CIVILIZATION), this is an anti-war movie. However, there are at least two major differences between the two movies. Whereas the earlier movie was made before its American audience got involved in World War I, this one (intended for French audiences) was made after the war had ended and people were ready to take stock of the event. Also, whereas the earlier movie suffered from preachiness and a tendency to be simplistic, this one chose instead to anchor itself in a solid story and to take a good look at the cost of the war to the human soul. Usually I don't care for movies where the central plot element is a love triangle, but they're rarely used to as good an effect as this one does.
Notably, the movie goes in unexpected directions; for example, when the poet and the husband end up in the same unit, I wasn't expecting that their love for the same woman would end up actually making them bond. I also admire the way they ultimately manage to make the brutish husband a sympathetic character and one capable of growth. I also think the ultimate message of the movie is more complex than simply "War is Bad!"; rather, it seems to saying that if there is war (and there will be), than it is up to the survivors to live their lives in a way that actually made it worth being fought. As for the fantastic content, there is a certain grotesque feel to some of the scenes, and there's a repeated visual motif of dancing skeletons. However, the primary content occurs at the climax, but since it's the most famous scene of the movie, it's not a huge spoiler; those who died in the war rise from their graves and march on the living, and even though it may be a mass hallucination, the movie leaves the reality of the event rather ambiguous.
J'Accuse was the only "peace film" to be made in Europe during World War I. Gance, who had served briefly in that conflict, returned to active service in 1918 to film harrowing battle scenes of soldiers actually under fire. Parts of the film were shot during the battle of St. Mihiel, one of the most significant of the war. Also, for the famous "March of the Dead" sequence at film's end, Gance used real soldiers home on leave from the front -- most of whom were killed within the following weeks. Some titles are taken from real letters written by soldiers to their families. Gance had secured enthusiastic support from the wartime French government, which saw the project as a call to patriotism. When it finally occurred to a government official to question the title and ask exactly who or what was being accused, Gance replied: "The war and its stupidity."
With this movie full of stunning imagery and stylish technique Abel Gance proved that he need take a back seat to no one when it came to mastery of the medium, in other words he forms a triumvirate with Sergei Eisenstein and David Wark Griffith, a triumvirate in which all are equal. The First World War was barely cold in its grave when Gance shot J'Accuse - a motif that recurs throughout from the visually stunning message spelled out by infantry at the outset to the child being taught to write it on a blackboard - yet remarkably what should now seem 'dated' is still potent - seventeen years later Irwin Shaw (who may or may not have seen or been aware of J'Accuse) utilised the concept of the dead protesting at the way in which their lives were squandered in his powerful One-Act play 'Bury The Dead' - and aspects of it were re-worked by others.
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