Category Archives: World War I

Westfront 1918 – the German side of war as told by G.W. Pabst

westfront 1918 1Westfront 1918 is a thoroughly grim but generous film about German soldiers and the women left behind.  The director is the great Austrian G.W. Pabst, never known for his upbeat perspectives.  Westfront 1918 reminded me of his easier-to-find film The Joyless Street in its view of women under the stress of war’s deprivations.  Westfront 1918, though, is much more invested in the fate of a particular group of soldiers who have little choice in their lives.   Although the characters are mostly German, this group of men could be interchangeable with types found in any number of American/British/French war films of the period.  The lesson of these films tends to be that the trench soldiers are innocently trapped in something they can’t change; the evil lies with commanders or, more broadly, with the vague forces that created the war in the first place.  Pabst doesn’t conjecture; he keeps his lens squared strictly on the victims.

The film has a number of unusual storylines.  Or, well, perhaps it isn’t the stories that are so westfront 1918 2unusual, but the particularly stark and uncompromising ways they are examined.  There are several striking, even unforgettable, scenes.   One comes early in the film when a group of soldiers is trapped underground in a collapsed trench while above them, their troop is being shelled in “friendly” fire.  This scene is intensely claustrophobic, yet highlights a moment of strength and bravery that is not melodramatic, but necessary — a big brute balances on his head the few boards that keep all the dirt from caving in and smothering them.  Another comes later in the kind of scene that Pabst is so good at — the depiction of the fallen woman and how she meets her fate.  This section has some gripping moments involving the cheated-upon husband, played by Pabst regular Gustav Diessl.  There’s also the story of “the kid” (or “the student”), a sweet and brave sort who wants to marry his French sweetheart.  Speaking of that sweetheart, there are some fairly overt sexual westfront 1918references that swirl around her; she is always surrounded by these German soldiers who have encamped in her house, and she seems pretty happy about it.  The film opens with a drunken scene of soldiers groping her — in a friendly way, of course, and she doesn’t mind — that we probably wouldn’t see in a film today.  Yet it somehow feels realistic in the context of the film, and the men have a protective attitude toward her and toward her lover, “the kid.”yvette 2

The dire circumstances surrounding war are brought in directly, but in a way that didn’t feel to me  too heavy-handed.  They fit the storyline.  There is a quick but pointed reference to the consequences of fleeing the service (“we’ve found a deserter; you’d better oil up your guns.”).  There are many touching, sad examples of the food shortage in Germany; the home situation is so grim, in fact, that the soldiers would prefer to fight rather than to stay there.  Going home on leave brings more grief than respite.  There is no refuge.  I admire this about Pabst.  He just does not quit.  He gives the viewer no pleasant out and little humor.   His film The Joyless Street is similar in this regard — women and men will do anything when food is involved, with the men using the women’s starvation as a means of leveraging power over them.  Anyone who doesn’t understand the situation in Germany during and after the first world war, and why that led to the rise of the Nazis, would do well to watch these films.  While The Joyless Street had Garbo around to pretty up and class up the town, there’s none of that in Westfront 1918.  There is not a hint of glamour.  Even the French girl lives in poverty.

soldiers westfront 1918 2What makes this all tolerable is the warmth of the soldiers toward one another.  There is a kind of matter-of-fact camaraderie and understated love.  Nobody gives speeches about it.  It’s shown primarily through the visual interactions between the characters — the way they help one another and work together — and through little jokes they make and songs they sing.  If there is redemption, it is in these small moments of humanity.

yvette westfront 1918Westfront 1918 was made in 1930, well after the war, but with the economic conditions still in place.  The film was resented by both the right and the left — by the right, for its clearly negative views about war — by the left for its unwillingness to delve into the political conditions that caused it.  Some viewers found Westfront 1918  too graphic in its violence, although this isn’t a problem for us now, since almost fifteen minutes were cut by the censors.  The random way that the men come under fire — the constant sense of doom — and the fact that this could come from either side of the battlefield is shown again and again.  It put me on edge for much of the movie.westfront 1918

While this is an early sound film, and the sound is used effectively, the cinematography, pacing, and the emphasis on “showing” over dialogue demonstrated that Pabst didn’t sacrifice his usual techniques and way of seeing for the new medium.  The singing, joking, and whistling in the trenches were natural and effective.  The only time the sound got in the way was in an extended stage show that appears in the middle of the film — and while it’s a rather creepy stage show, given that there is a clown involved, and while the sound slides nicely into the following juxtaposing scene, it is still an awfully long demonstration of “here’s what we can do with music!”.  But for the most part, sound is used well and doesn’t sound messy, muffled, or awkward.breadline westfront 1918 3

This was a striking and disturbing movie.  I’d love to see a good version of it.  I have no idea why it is so hard to find.  I found a DVD copy with English subtitles on Amazon, but it is a bad print and clearly was just duplicated by some guy off of some old video.  That the film was great enough to transcend its fading and bad duplication says much in itself.  If someone would take the time to clean this up and put it out in a good edition, I’m sure it would be viewed as often as All Quiet on the Western Front.  It is at least as good.  With the interest in Pabst’s work (and many critics list it as among his top five films), and the general interest people have in war films, it’s perplexing to me that this hasn’t been resurrected.  Too bad Pabst didn’t just toss Garbo in and have her stand beside the trench.  Then we’d get a good print.

G.W. Pabst directing Mack the Knife.

G.W. Pabst directing Mack the Knife.

Outskirts – Boris Barnet’s Russia in World War I

outskirts nicolai white flagI first came across Boris Barnet by watching the Russian silent comedy Miss Mend, a frenetic, quirky, episodic tale of a female labor activist and an evil American industrialist.  Miss Mend is a slapstick silly assault on capitalism, and while the lifts from American film are clear, there’s also a specifically Russian kind of dark humor — no matter how bad the situation gets, it can still be funny in the most fatalistic way.

Director Boris Barnet (with camera) in Miss Mend

Director Boris Barnet (with camera) in Miss Mend

Before Miss Mend, I was appreciative of the great Soviet silents, but a bit put off by the Bolshevik weightiness, never quite able to shake my sense that the work was censored.  Miss Mend opened my mind to what else was out there — and it put me on the search for more Boris Barnet. (Barnet is credited only as an actor in the Miss Mend (he plays an American journalist), but film theorist Giuliano Vivaldi believes that Barnet was the film’s co-director.) Unfortunately, very few of Barnet’s films are on DVD with English subtitles.  These are outskirts flying soldiers The House on Trubnaya Square (found in Kino’s Landmarks of Soviet Film set ), The Girl with the Hatbox, By the Bluest of Seas, and the film I’m going to discuss here, Outskirts.

Outskirts, made in 1933, is technically a talkie, but with the subtitles on, I really found that it worked quite naturally as a silent film; the visuals do much to tell the story.

Yelena Kuzmina

Yelena Kuzmina

I loved Outskirts (also found under the titles The Patriots — I have no idea why, as the film is subversively not patriotic — and its Russian title, Okraina).   Outskirts is irreverent, poignant, and disturbing; I was moved by it, and it’s bumped into the top five films I’ve seen about World War I.  Many critics rightfully compare it to Godard’s Grand Illusion.  It’s also my favorite Russian film to date.  There are a number of interwoven story lines, but put most directly, it’s the tale of a pair of brothers and a pair of friends who are divided by the war, of the effects of war on their isolated town.  Two middle aged men, one Russian and one German, play checkers and drink beer together; the war makes them heartbroken enemies. outskirts checkers 2 Two brothers, one smart and one dumb, meet their fates in the stalemate of trench warfare.  And those in the town of shoemakers display their corruption and their compassion when faced with those labeled the enemy.  These situations aren’t presented in any kind of predictable or straightforward manner.  They break the conventions of the war films to which I’ve become accustomed (and I’ve seen many).   There are strange, disturbing twists which I would love to give away, but won’t; I can’t really get them out of my mind, I found them so startling.  There are also some sweet, funny moments, also surprising, as when one brother, Nicolai, has a German soldier practically land in his lap and they rather happily agree that the German ought to now be a prisoner of war.  At this point, the film then follows the story of this German soldier, who goes back as a prisoner to our little Russian town, thus linking the stories again in a new way.  The depiction of the German soldier is deeply sympathetic, as it is with the German friend; this film takes no sides.  (The only side seems to be against pre-revolutionary government and the industrialists who made money from the war.)

Nikolai, played by Nikolai Bogolyubov

Nikolai, played by Nikolai Bogolyubov

All of the stories come together through the setting of the town and through two townspeople: an innocent, knowing girl, and a poor old shoemaker, the brothers’ father.  These characters are consistently the fairest and the least involved in the allegiances of the war.  This is a complex ensemble, with all characters carrying a certain weight, and none of them serving simply symbolic purposes; both the setting and the characters are highly realistic.  Nearly everyone in the film is poor-but-pretty-happy — not in an overly political sense, but in the way that a town full of laborers actually would be.  I wasn’t getting too much of a feeling of These are the Proletariat (okay, just a little, as when a strike is depicted), but I rather found myself thinking, “oh, that’s what a little Russian town was really like in the early days of the revolution.”

The shoemaker father (Aleksandr Chistyakov)

The shoemaker father (Aleksandr Chistyakov)

Every person in this cast was first rate.  No one hogged the limelight.  No one came off as a caricature.  The actors came from a range of theatrical and film backgrounds, and a number of them went on to appear in films for years.  Barnet keeps all of the characters (and the actors) in beautiful balance.  I can’t even say that I liked one actor more than another, can’t give any kind of special credit.  The ensemble was seamless.outskirts nicolai

 

Though this is considered a war film, the battle scenes were not epic.  They were close up with a focus on the characters.  The action is mostly in the trenches — with the exception of a scene in which the German and Russian soldiers who face one another across the expanse attempt to forge their own ceasefire, and nearly pull it off.  (By the way, this actually did happen in World War I — bored troops, tired of the stalemate, deciding to quit and wait it out by not shooting at one another anymore.  This wasn’t just a symbolic scene.)

Without ever being heavy-handed, the film shows the pointlessness of war.  Nobody has a valiant death.  Nobody is redeemed.  Nobody commits a heroic act (except, perhaps, the innocent girl, Anka).  This isn’t played for melodrama — there’s no “oh, the futility!”.   It’s simply the way it is.  It’s even pulled off with a bit of bitter humor.  And there is a very strange and very Russian ending.

Outskirts has been released with another Barnet film, The Girl with the Hatbox, in a set by Image Entertainment produced by David Shepard.  It’s a bargain.  Everyone who is interested early cinema of all kinds, Russian films, or war films really ought to see this.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Valentino in World War I

4horsemen deathThe ambitious anti-war film Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is mainly known now as the springboard for the career of Rudolph Valentino and the impetus for the tango craze in the U.S.  While Valentino is certainly nice to watch, the film is far more complex than a single role, and deserves to be more widely viewed and reconsidered.  It’s the masterwork of Irish director Rex Ingram, once one of the most popular directors of the silent era.  Four Horsemen, in fact, was one of the hits of 1921 — which is a bit surprising, considering that it was made immediately after the end of World War I, is completely anti-war, and in fact doesn’t choose a side. The point of the film is that all are brothers, and the war had no winners.  Pretty radical thinking, really, by a UK filmmaker when you consider how many Allies died and that the Irish, Welsh, Scots, and Aussies made up much of the front lines. But World War I seemed to inspire this type of questioning among artists, and the number of books and films that were against the war is surprising.  (It reminds me of the number of anti-war films and memoirs that appeared post-Vietnam.)  Ingram was only twenty-nine and fresh out of service with the Canadian Royal Flying Corps.  Four Horsemen pulled no punches in its anti-war perspective, and still brought in audiences who were impressed by the film’s epic scope and our favorite Latin heartthrob.rudy as soldier

The film, based upon a Spanish novel, unfolds like a parable.  A Spanish rancher with beautiful daughters has several grandsons.  One is a beloved and spoiled rogue, with a French father, played by Valentino; the others have a German father, and they are not nearly so lovable.  They abide by rules and spend time studying, while Valentino lives the sensuous life (being more like his grandfather).  Thus each character stands for a European type, and the stage is set.  Though types, this actually comes across realistically; the acting is quite good, and the contrasts between the various characters are interesting, and neither side is presented as being right.  (Strangely, the character actor Alan Hale is excellent as the German father, and I even forgot that he was the father of the Gilligan’s chum The Skipper.)  Valentino is actually one of the weakest performers, but he can get by with it because of his beauty, his dancing, and his youth — which is all that the part really asks of him.  And he looks beautifully sad as the movie goes on.4horsemen valentino

After the doting grandfather’s death, the families split, with one going to France and the other back to Germany.  When the war begins, the sons are, of course, on opposing sides.  It’s that simple.  What makes the film strange and even disturbing is the visual way the story is told.  Much is made of portents which are told through the Book of Revelations by a mysterious prophet (who appears to be a kind of Jewish mystic crossed with a Bolshevik; it’s a bit unclear).  While my print of the film was pretty bad — and probably no better exists — this scene of the prediction is still disturbing (to me, anyway).  I can only imagine how striking and strange it must have seemed to audiences of the period.  There is a kind of poetic, hushed quality to this scene, which is punctuated by the soldiers gathering on the streets below and a woman who leaps to her death from a balcony.  4horsemen prophet at tableAs young Julio is told this story he begins to realize that the war will not only get in the way of his success as a tango dancer, but might be a good deal scarier.  It’s the end of his innocence, which represents the death of a kind of happy innocence held by nearly everyone then.  It’s hard to imagine, really, that this world war really was the first; it was supposed to be short — a few months.  No one imagined years of trench warfare that would kill most of the young men of Europe.  No one really imagined a reality of fighter planes, gas, and machine guns — mechanized destruction that we take for granted now.  If immediately after this war, films are referring to the apocalypse — well, seems a sensible reaction.

4 horsemen soldiersIn its actual war scenes, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse only hints at the actual carnage.  Gance’s J’Accuse, for one, is a far more graphic depiction, and was filmed at roughly the same time.  While Ingram’s war scenes are described in reviews of the day as being highly realistic and epic, I found them difficult to make out — dark, hazy, smoky.  I don’t know if this means that there were scenes missing from my print, or the print is in such a sorry state of fade that it’s hard to see.  At any rate, director Rex Ingram was apparently careful to keep every detail accurate, and was advised by military men from both the English and German sides concerning uniforms and traditions.  The war scenes also involved many extras (72 “principle players”) and cost $80,000 to make. (It again wasn’t as realistic as J’Accuse, which was filmed on a French battlefield during the war; Four Horseman‘s France was Griffith Park.)  Some of the best war depictions occur not during fighting, but in two key scenes.  In one, a uniformed Julio is met in a small town by his father, and we find out how he is faring now that he is a soldier and not an artist (very well, thank you).  The way Julio is standing on the road with the other soldiers is actually a direct reflection of still photographs of soldiers taken in France, and is very realistic. 4horsemen drag show4 horsemen germansAnother involves Julio’s family castle in Marne being overrun by a group of German soldiers (among them Wallace Beery), who proceed to swill beer, almost molest the women, and have a little drag show.  It’s decadent, elaborate, and fun to watch.  It’s actually good to know that not all Germans spend their time studying and plotting the overthrow of Europe.

Another element of the story involves Julio’s romance with a somewhat older married woman, Marguerite, played by Alice Terry.  This is all pretty standard melodramatic silent movie fare, albeit with Marguerite eventually becoming a Red Cross nurse.  There is a jilted husband and a scandal; the husband is blinded in the war, and Marguerite has to make a choice.  Terry is very pretty in this role, and allows for a bit of simmer between her and Rudy, but it’s not really all that important to the story.  It does allow for one spooky scene, which I will not spoil.4horsemen alice terry 2

For all of its gloominess, this film made a million dollars, becoming the sixth most successful silent film ever made.  Though it was feared that audiences would not be ready to watch anything about the war, they seemed eager to try to come to terms with it through this often beautiful and sad parable.4horsemen soldier

 

4horsemen crosses

A war comedy? – the 1926 version of What Price Glory

gloryI’ve been reading up on World War I memoirs and watching silent films trying to get some sense of depictions of the war during the lifetimes of those who were actually there.  I was looking forward to watching What Price Glory?, as it was based on a play by Maxwell Anderson and Lawrence Stallings.  Based on the title and the credentials of the writers, I figured it had to be a serious anti-war movie.  That it features Victor McLaughlin (who was so great in The Informer) and Edmund Lowe were again pluses in its favor (although I was a bit dubious at the prospect of Dolores Del Rio playing a French woman).  And it’s directed by Raoul Walsh, who just two years before directed The Thief of Bagdad and two years after Sadie Thompson, both movies I love. — Well, maybe I was expecting too much, because I was completely let downsoldier dog what price glory

What Price Glory? tries to make war look fun.  Except for about twenty minutes of battle scenes, it’s a string of gags about sleeping with French girls and/or soldiers laughing at their superior officers.  I guess if it wasn’t a war movie, I would have found some of this pretty funny — though even at that, the jokes wear thin, since they’re awfully repetitive.  It’s frustrating, really, because this movie should have been good.  McLaughlin and Lowe are both excellent as rivals for pretty much everything, particularly the affections of women.  McLaughlin is a big dumb lug (of course) who is entertaining to watch; Lowe is the handsome, serious soldier.  war is fun what price glorywar is still fun

The movie picks up considerably in the second half — once we really get into the war.  That’s when it finally shifts out of the farcical tone and lightweight character development into the real point of the film.  This isn’t to say that even then the film loses its humor; it’s that the humor no longer dominates or seems forced.  Director Raoul Walsh seems to be more confident and involved, and there are a number of great moments.  The battle scenes, while done quickly and not entirely realistically (I was always aware of being on a set), still manage to give a bit of a sense of trench warfare.  (There’s mostly, though, quite a bit of “blowing stuff up” — not nearly as boring as World War I actually was).  The later scenes with Charmaine (Dolores Del Rio) are sometimes moving as she wonders which of her suitors she will be with and what will become of them both.  There’s a good risque moment when it’s clear that she and the sergeant plan to sleep with one another; it’s handled well — it’s clear but subtle enough to slip past the censors, and really quite sweet.  And the scene when she visits the soldier’s grave is lovely and genuinely moving.  blue war what price gloryVictor McLaughlin is particularly excellent throughout this part of the film; in fact, he carries it.  HIs emotions are quietly handled, revealed through quick expressions covered by a show of humor or anger.  Even the cinematography becomes more interesting.  The dialogue is still way too heavy-handed and speech-y, possibly because it’s adapted from a stage play.  But at least it’s trying to finally live up to the promise of its title.

dolores what price gloryI kept wishing I could rewrite this movie, and I found it strange that so many cliches could come from a play by two good writers.  (And I think these were cliches even back then.)  The men who turned the play into intertitles must have been slumming.  Of course, since the film is silent, we’re not going to “hear” most of the dialogue, so it’s possible that much of the real wit and tragedy was lost in the transference to silent film.  It shouldn’t have had to be that way, though; certainly there were extremely effective silent war movies, including some adapted from novels.  It made me curious enough try to find the actual stage play.  Except – wait….It’s very difficult to actually find this play.  It’s out of print and there seem to be no digital copies lurking around on the internet.

Finally I’ve come to accept that I can appreciate the film for its good moments and for its historical value.  The play was, after all, a huge hit on Broadway, so perhaps the humor-battle mix was something that people felt they needed then.  And I think I’m fascinated with the way it uses a kind of unironic slapstick humor and tries to meld it on to a war film with a message.  That doesn’t mean I’d go out of my way to watch it again, though.

This film isn’t currently available on DVD except for some cheap-o versions on movie fan sites (which is how I got mine).

This is Victor McLaughlin's tattoo of "Sapho" -- a pretty good joke, really.

This is Victor McLaughlin’s tattoo of “Sapho” — a pretty good joke, really.

 

 

 

J’Accuse! – World War I in the trenches & at home


j-accuse crosses
J’Accuse, directed by Abel Gance, is a long, intense, & strange exploration of World War I filmed during the time the war was happening. Released in 1919, the film by the early French auteur is a raging look at war and love that uses a romantic story to link the menage a trois relationship between its three central characters with the horrors of the front. One woman (not a very interesting one), a husband (very intriguing brute), and a lover (moony poet) are pulled into an ever-more-horrible situation as war makes victims of all of them. While the story might seem hackneyed and even befuddling today, I had no problem with the melodrama and found myself becoming involved in the ways that their threesome played out.jaccuse couple The long film brings the two men together on the battlefield and continually plays with the questions of who is strong and who is weak; who is ultimately kinder; who is most willing to sacrifice (and what). Back at home, the woman makes sacrifices of her own that impact the course of the story in even more complex ways. This is the plot that ties the strands together. The plot is not important. What matters are the scenes of war and the story of war’s impact; makes them matter is the way J’Accuse is filmed.

Watching J’Accuse is like falling into some slow and deliberate dream (not a nightmare, really). This makes its subjects of domestic violence, trench warfare, multiple betrayals, and pointless sacrifice all the more disturbing. We’re used to seeing random violence in contemporary films to the point that it’s barely noticeable. To see moments of brutality in a silent film that is beautifully composed is  jarring. That they slip in almost unannounced is even stranger. That everyone serves as a symbol, as a representative type, implies vast levels of darkness.

jaccuse face

An example of a quick moment of brutality comes early in the movie, before we even get to the war. This is when the husband, also known as the Brute, maritally rapes his wife. We don’t see the rape. What we see is her quaking by the bed, his hand coming down on her hair and pulling her up, and, for a moment, a glimpse of an exposed breast. That’s all. But I’ll never forget that image. This is only one of such moments in this film. Over and over, Gance juxtaposes beauty with evil and/or death, sometimes quite literally, as in a montage in which a closeup of a flower is contrasted with corpses in a trench.

jaccuse frontAbel Gance briefly served in World War I before being discharged because of his health. He created J’Accuse because of the deaths of so many people he knew and because of all that he witnessed on the battlefield. Filming took place between August 1918 and February 1919 (armistice was declared in November 1918), and some of it took place at the front. He enlisted in the Section Cinématographique and filmed the battle of Saint-Mihiel; this footage appears near the end of the film.  The depiction of trench warfare, however, goes through half the film; recreated fictional footage is juxtaposed with actual images from the front. jaccuse dead march 1 J’Accuse builds slowly to a shocking death march that used two thousand actual soldiers. Surely they knew their fate, and of course we do; this makes this already eerie, disturbing scene particularly unforgettable. Gance said in an interview with Kevin Brownlow, “The conditions in which we filmed were profoundly moving… These men had come straight from the Front – from Verdun – and they were due back eight days later. They played the dead knowing that in all probability they’d be dead themselves before long. Within a few weeks of their return, eighty per cent had been killed.”Jaccuse march

The images in this film are exceptionally beautiful. Many frames can be separated out to create a lovely artistic photograph. To an astonishing degree Gance and cinematographer Léonce-Henry Burel are able to convey myriad meaning in single images or in particular brief scenes. It is why silent film was the perfect mode for Gance’s work; words are not only not necessary, but they actually get in the way. Gance’s career barely survived the silent era, and his sound work was never as good, though he lived for many years after it.jaccuse old people

There are a number of surreal and/or fantasy moments in the film. Sometimes these take place when a character is daydreaming of someone or imagining a situation. Sometimes they involve the dancing skeletons that appear throughout the film. Sometimes they simply come in some kind of startling closeup of an ordinary object when we don’t expect it. I found these to be fascinating even when at times they didn’t quite work. Later filmmakers borrowed from these techniques (over and over again).jaccuse dream woman

The acting in J’Accuse tends to be of the overly histrionic sort that many silent movie performers fall into. The exception was the work of Severin-Mars, who portrays the husband, Francois. His role is the most nuanced (and probably the one that most interested Gance), as he transforms himself from a killer (one of the first images involves him sitting with his dog beside a slaughtered deer) to, well, a sanctioned and heroic killer who comes to a better understanding of his fellow humans. Jaccuse brute It would have been easy to play his character as evil, but instead he becomes almost sympathetic — well, as sympathetic as anyone in the film actually is — as he is shown to be genuinely in love with his wife and very sentimental. I found this realistic, as brutal men often do also have just this type of sensitive side. Severin-Mars was also featured in Gance’s film La Roue, and he died a few years after making J’Accuse. The female role in the film is one of tragic victimization, and although the actress Maryse Dauvray is beautiful, that’s not enough to pull the character further.  To Gance’s credit, though, he at least attempts to address the situation at home for those isolated people who lack knowledge of the fate of their loved ones. jaccuse woman in doorway As for the character of the poet, his fate is not surprising — and, like Dauvray, the actor Romuald Joubé is more eye-candy than good at acting. But maybe this is all to be expected when the characters are fundamentally types placed in an epic scenario.The film was a hit in its day in its native France, giving the lie, I guess, to the notion that art films don’t make money. It did well in Britain, too, although Gance and Pathe Studios had difficulty getting it distributed in the States. Eventually United Artists came through; this was when UA was jointly owned by Pickford, Fairbanks, Chaplin, and Griffith. While J’Accuse was expensive to make, it made back far more. And its wide distribution allowed it to become an influence on countless artists.

Filming J'Accuse on location: (l to r)  Marc Bujard, Maurice Forster, Antonin Nalpes, and Abel Gance

Filming J’Accuse on location: (l to r) Marc Bujard, Maurice Forster, Antonin Nalpes, and Abel Gance

J’Accuse is currently available in a fine DVD edition from Lobster Films in conjunction with Flicker Alley.

 

 

 

 

 

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a World War I poem by Edmund Blunden & the River Kwai

Sessue Hayakawa in The Bridge Over the River Kwai

Sessue Hayakawa in The Bridge Over the River Kwai

I was looking for poems today by the poet Edmund Blunden, a British writer-soldier who survived World War I and suffered a lifetime of post-traumatic stress. Last night I watched The Bridge on the River Kwai, the classic David Lean movie about World War II. I’ve noticed that many war movies, beginning from the beginning of war movies, often have a little scene of soldiers entertaining themselves with a makeshift floor show. If the film concerns the Brits, the floor show is always a group of Monty Python-esque crossdressers clowning it up. Kwai drag This scene in River Kwai is astonishing in the way it cuts the show with the actions of other soldiers, particularly in the intercutting of the intense, seemingly calm Japanese officer who prepares for life or death while the soldiers dance. This morning in reading an Edmund Blunden poem I found a similar use of cross-action between the show and the reality just beyond. Some World War I poems are brutal in how much is held back but conveyed in a few pointed lines:

Concert Party: Busseboom

The stage was set, the house was packed,
The famous troop began;
Our laughter thundered, act by act;
Time light as sunbeams ran.

Dance sprang and spun and neared and fled,
Jest chirped at gayest pitch,
Rhythm dazzled, action sped
Most comically rich.

With generals and lame privates both
Such charms worked wonders, till
The show was over lagging loth
We faced the sunset chill;
And standing on the sandy way,
With the cracked church peering past,
We heard another matinee,
We heard the maniac blast

Of barrage south by Saint Eloi,
And the red lights flaming there
Called madness: Come, my bonny boy,
And dance to the latest air.

To this new concert, white we stood;
Cold certainty held our breath;
While men in tunnels below Larch Wood
Were kicking men to death.