Les Croix de Bois

A DVD arrived this morning, of the 1932 French film of Raymond Dorgeles’ 1919 novel Les Croix de Bois (Wooden Crosses). This is France’s answer to All Quiet on the Western Front, and a film I’ve wanted to see for a while.

It’s a Zone 1 DVD and apparently came out a year ago, but I’ve only just caught up with it. It’s in a two-film pack, together with a version of Les Miserables by the same director (Raymond Bernard).

I should have been writing this morning, but settled down to watch the movie instead, and it’s highly recommended, with some of the best WW1 battle scenes that I’ve seen. It follows a similar pattern to All Quiet – starting with recruitment, then telling the story of a group of soldiers, as one by one they die. For an early sound film it’s remarkable. The acting is  less stagey than All Quiet – or maybe I’m less sensitive to staginess when the dialogue is in French.

There is some very imaginative use of sound. For example, there’s a scene (straight out of the book) in which soldiers in a front-line dugout can hear the sound of picks as miners tunnel beneath them. The same situation was used in Patrick MacGill’s play Suspense in 1930, and Walter Summers’s film of the play in 1931 – though my hunch is that MacGill got the idea from Dorgeles’ original book.

Another very effective use of sound is when one of the young soldiers is on sentry duty, and can hear the moans and pleading of the wounded out in No-Man’s-Land. One of the very grimmest scenes in any war film.

Most of the scenes in the film have a basis in the novel, but there is a difference in tone. The book was published in 1919, and is finally about survival. Near the end the character Sulphart declares: “I call it a victory because I have come out of it with my life.” – which probably summed up a lot of Frenchmen’s feelings in 1919. It is followed, though, by a short chapter in which the author speaks to the dead:

We shall forget. The veils of mourning will fall, even as the dead leaves fall. The image of the soldier who has disappeared forever will slowly fade in the consoled hearts of those he loved so much. And all the dead men will die for the second time.

The author remembers his “regiment of ghosts”, and the good times as well as the terrible ones. He finishes with “a feeling of remorse that I should have dared to laugh over your hardships, as if I had carved a penny whistle out of your crosses.”

The end of the film is totally different. Sulphart gets his famous line, but after that we are not allowed to escape into the post-war. There is yet another battle, in which Gilbert, the young hero is killed, very like the ending of All Quiet. Where the book was a tribute to the dead, the film is a warning to the living. The opening shows massed ranks of French soldiers on parade, and the image fades into  serried  ranks of wooden crosses. Throughout the film there are reminders of the horrors of war. After one tremendously violent battle sequence, a title comes up: “This went on for ten days.” more battle scenes are interspersed with more titles : “Ten days!” and “TEN DAYS!” It’s a film that wants to make sure that you’ve caught its message.

As I said, highly recommended.

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