Monday, January 26, 2009

Les Croix de bois

After a harrowing brush with death defending a cemetery - of all places - the staunch if fatalistic Sulphart composes a grim tune : "Oui, tu l'auras ta croix / Si ce n'est pas la Croix de Guerre / Ce sera la croix de bois." This moment encapusilizes Raymond Bernard's 1932 film about the Great War: the dire circumstances of les poilus and their attemps to come to terms with the absurdity of their experience. Song is an important part of the French soldiers' lives, which oscillate wildly between drunken merry-making (that are more desperate than jovial) and fatal, oppressive artillery barrages in the wastelands between the trenches.

For contemporary audiences, Les Croix de bois doesn't bring much of anything to new to our knowledge and understanding of either World War One or historical filmmaking in general. Works such as J'Accuse! (Gance, 1919), All Quiet on the Western Front (Mileston, 1930), Un long dimanche de fian├žailles (Jeunet, 2004) and Paths of Glory (Kubrik, 1957) are better known and take more innovative approaches to the unprecendented horrors of the Great War. Content-wise, Les Croix de bois provides what had already become fixtures of the era on-screen: the filth of trenches, the hyprocisy of the aristocratic officer corps, the out-moded insanity of tactics and the desperate oscillations of hope and despair amongst the troops. Neither is their much to say about Bernard's cinematography. Aside from some dramatic tracking shots and hand-held camerawork that lend battle scenes a sense of urgency, the superimposition special effects seem to be either a non-sequitir in this otherwise very realistic movie, or incompletely realized - especially in comparison to the earlier J'Accuse! or the poetic Un long dimanche de fian├žailles.

Nonetheless, it is illuminating to consider Les Croix de bois in the historical context of its creation and original release. Firstly, in 1932, very few French films had dealt with the still-fresh trauma of the Great War, which had decimated nearly a quarter of the adult male population and laid waste to vast swaths of the northeastern countryside. Also during this time, class tensions were high in France, and Bernard's film anticipates the pro-proletariat attitudes of the Popular Front by focusing on the clearly working-class foot soldiers. An interesting note is the quasi-sympathetic depiction of the German soldiers (again, through song), which in early works had been thoroughly demonized. Again, all of is much better treated in other films, notably Renoir's Grande Illusion (1937).

Les Croix de bois does include some laudable elements, notably in its realistic reconstruction of life on the front and the focus on the trials and tribulations of the common poilu. The hand-held camera work and rapid tracking shots of the battle scenes were rare at the time and their visceral nature certainly influenced later cinematic treats of war. There are some moments of elegaic poetry: protagonsit Demachy's visit to a comrade's grave, his prayer to the Virgin Mary ("We just want to survive"), langquid establishing shots of the desloate no-mans-land. These are occasional but heart-wrenching moments. Additionally, the ending is remarkable, even for the French who are more accostumed to unhappying endings: tragically (and with excruciating slowness) killing your protagonist is a dramatic statement about war's absurdity.

However, the tone of this ending is part of what's not quite right with the film: the obvious switch from location shooting to a studio set, the almost risible pacing and the non-sequitir superimpostion soliders (both French and German!) marching to their graves, each with a literal cross to bear. It's not over the top, in fact, it's insufficient, especially when compared to the expressivity of Jean Renoir's fluid camerawork and striking characterization or Abel Gance's visual reworkings of 19th-century poetic tropes that have the dead marching not to their graves but back home. Thus, Les Croix de bois may have had a certain influence on later war films (one can see direct borrowings in Paths of Glory), it remains a work of secondary importance.

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