J'Accuse is one of three films which are widely considered to be Abel Gances finest, the others are Napoleon and La Roue, I'll be viewing La Roue soon and will maybe write a piece about it.
Out of the films budget of 500,000 Francs, he made more than 3 million, it was a great success, critically and commercially. Yet now it has been almost forgotten and is very hard to find, it's audience is almost entirely composed of film students, in particular those studying French cinema, yet it deserves so much more, it deserves to be recognised as one of highlights of the silent era, alongside such films as Metropolis, The Birth of A Nation and The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari.
But despite the films later successes it hadn't had an easy start, funding was hard to find so soon after the war, especially for an Anti-war film so powerful and full of righteous anger against those responsible for the horrific war, as this one is.
In fact the only reason Gance managed to secure funds for his project was because he claimed it was a patriotic film, when in fact it strongly condemned and even denounced patriotism and it's follies, the politicians, the whole government as the cause of this pointless war, and above all the insanity of war.
The film tells the tale of two men, the poetical ,scholarly and sensitive Jean Diaz and the brutish, bloodthirsty Francois Laurin, the only thing they seem to have in common is their love for the same woman, Edith Laurin, wife of Francois. They live a peaceful life in Provence, Jean lives alone with his mother, and Edith's father, Maria Lazare, watches over her and her husband.
Maria Lazare is an important character throughout most of the film and I think much can be learned from studying him, he is a veteran of the 1870 war against Prussia, during which Frances armies were destroyed and humiliated. The regions of Alsace and Lorraine were taken from the French by force and became a part of Prussia, Maria dreams of restablishing France's honour by reclaiming these lost lands.
This is one of he main reasons why the outbreak of the war was greeted with such patriotic fervour by the Frenchmen, old and young alike. In a way it can be likened to the situation Germany was in before the Second World War, humiliated by it's enemies and enthusiastic to prove it's worth to the world again by avenging former offences.
But anyway, back to the story, as I said, Jean and Francois are near opposites, this is again evident when the call to arms arrives and they are mobilized, Francois sets out immediately but Jean lingers, mournful, reciting his Ode to the Sun in which he celebrates peace, joy, beauty and light.
The war will change both of these men to a degree barely imaginable from what we have seen so far.
Diaz will become enraged at the desolation he witnesses, the soldier within him will take the place of the poet. He descends into insanity, he was too sensitive to bear witness to such horrors. Francois on the other hand changes for the better, he overcomes his senseless rivalry with Jean Diaz and accepts that they both love Edith equally and that she loves Jean. This new-found acceptance completely changes his character for the better, which makes his tragic end even more painful to watch.
That is all I will reveal of the story, even though there is much, much more, especially concerning the tragic fates of Edith, Jean Diaz's Mother and Maria Lazare, but you'll have to see the film for yourselves to find out just how tragic it really is.....
Gance himself was exempt from military service due to health problems, but many of his friends were killed in the conflict.
After reading Robert Graves's autobiography Goodbye To All That, which is excellent, as well as J.R.R Tolkien's biography and All Quiet on The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, I have come to realise that so many young talented men, poets, artists, musicians.... gave their lives in this conflict, but did they die in vain? This war was supposed to be the last great war, the war that would bring peace, it didn't though, it was only a prelude to a much more terrible war.
It is not so much a film that chronicles the events of the war or even shows important battles of the war instead it focuses on the effects that the war had on individuals, men ,women, mothers, fathers.
This isn't a film that shows the acheivements of war, their weren't many in the First World War anyway, but rather the terrible, terrible consequences and the almost unbearably sad situations people had to live through all because of their governments, hence the name, J'Accuse (I Accuse) for the main character, Jean Diaz (speaking for Abel Gance, in a way) accuses the governments, the wars, the people who profited from the war, the insanity of war and ,eventually in his insanity, the Sun for illuminating and bearing witness to such horrors as the war.
One of the predominant themes of this film is the "love triangle" between Francois, Edith and Jean, Abel Gance seems to say, "if these two rivals, who both prize the same woman can peacefully come to an understanding and ultimately accept each other, why cannot are governments do the same, in short why is War necessary when one can have a peaceful resolution.
Gance views the war not with cynicism but with a profound sadness.
Few other films have moved me to this extent, the amount of suffering the characters go through is astounding, all around them is bloodshed, despair and worse, it all has no ultimate purpose, yet through all this the human spirit still shines and scenes of kindness between former rivals are heartbreaking to watch. And the scene of the death of Francois, sure he had been a brute but he had undergone many changes over the course of the war and ended up embracing his rival and forgiving his wife, did he deserve to die, unhappy on a bed in a place that was unknown to him for a cause that had become vague?
What are these men fighting for? , they don't even seem to know any more, the purpose has been lost and now their reality is atrocious conflict for no reason, no glorious victory awaits them, they are not freeing an oppressed people, they are not combating evil, they are fighting their brothers, men like them who have lost purpose in their lives through endless bloody slaughter.
By the end of this film, I wanted to rise up and shout J'Accuse! I Accuse! for this filled me with righteous anger, against injustice, the futility of war, this is just a very inspiring film.
The men leave the front and escape the war's physical atrocities, but on arriving home they are confronted with horrors that are just as depressing and dispiriting than those on the front, although these are more on an emotional level.
For the film doesn't just concentrate of the sufferings of men, as many films tend to, it shows just as much, or even more so, the sufferings of the women, for as Gance says, "War kills Mothers, not only sons."
Edith's fate turns out to be overwhelmingly tragic, far more than I first expected, in fact the whole film exceeded all my expectations, at first I was looking forward to watching a another work by Gance, the slightly disappointed by the slow beginning but by the end of the film I was speechless.
Some might argue that the film is emotionally manipulative, but I would argue that feeling sad while watching this is the right response, for it is a sad, sad subject.
Of course the film isn't without it's flaws, it's pacing is rather uneven, it's acting typically over the top, it's camera movements rather abrupt, and it's very slow to get started, but in my opinion the sheer brilliance of the final scenes and the "walk of the dead" overshadows any of the films over flaws.
I think one of the most serious and negative claims to be made against this film was when some critics called it clichéd, and relying on cheap emotions; I am at a loss at how to respond to this for it is incomprehensible to me, but I can assure you that these claims are unfounded and if such charges could be levelled against this film then what should all the cliché-ridden and manipulative films that come out every week be called?
|The beginning of "the walk of the dead"|
This "walk of the dead" scene is one of the films most famous (I'm not sure if that term applies due to fact that this film is criminally overlooked), it certainly is one of the most powerful scenes to be put on film. I wouldn't want to reveal anything about it though, all I'll tell you is that it involves 2000 soldiers who were back from Verdun (one of the deadliest battlefields of the war) on leave, Gance recalled: "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."
But that scene isn't the only one to have profound importance and a large impact on me, the scenes of The Ode to the Sun were very touching for they showed, perhaps more than anything else, the terrible transformation Jean undergoes. His final Ode in which he accuses the Sun is quite haunting.
As are all the scenes involving those dancing skeletons, it really is the work of a genius.
Another element that really caught my eye were the inter-title cards. Some of them were beautifully hand drawn, others were handwritten excerpts of authentic soldiers letters (a few of which I had read at school), the rest were traditionally done.
All in all this is a film with a powerful message, but instead of just dictating his beliefs to the viewer, Gance managed to create work of art that is both extremely moving and very beautiful. A true triumph in Cinema.
Highly recommended to all serious students in Cinema, all those interested in the First World War and all those wanting to see a film that feels incredibly "true" and human, such films as this are extremely rare nowadays.
I have seen many films that make strong arguments against the existence of war, but I have to say that this is
the first to cause me to truly question my beliefs, for before watching this film I had never truly considered myself a pacifist, I was far from being pro-war, but I had a morbid fascination with war especially the Second World War, but this film has changed all that, from now on I am a resolved pacifist. And for that I must thank Abel Gance and all those that participated in the making of this unforgettable film.
For one would truly have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the eloquence, intelligence and heartfelt compassion with which Abel Gance, his crew and his cast infused this film.
The Anti-War genre is a very powerful one in Cinema, it contains such masterpieces as Platoon, Born of The Fourth Of July and Heaven and Earth, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Paths of Glory and Dr Strangelove, All Quiet On The Western Front, Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, Lord Of War and The Thin Red Line.
Some films are less opinionated and instead focus on telling a story that just happens to take place during a war, these films are rather neutral and only use the war for plot purposes such as Pearl Harbor or Enemy at the Gates.
But on the other-hand there are film that can be described as Pro-War, interestingly enough these films are often far less known than the ones I've listed above and generally received mixed reviews, the are not common these days and reached their peak in the 60's with films like The Green Berets.
Other later films have dealt with this war and some of them are masterpieces, such as All Quiet On The Western Front and The Paths Of Glory, and of course these later films easily surpass J'Accuse in terms of acting and direction, but they lack the one thing that makes J'Accuse so unforgettably powerful, it's realism, for it was filmed during the final stages of the war and released in 1919 barely a year after the war had ended. Some of the footage, shot by Gance himself in very dangerous circumstances, is of actual battlefields and real offensive.
Naturally one can't blame All Quiet On The Western Front and Paths Of Glory for their "lack" of realism as it was entirely due to the time the films were made, but this isn't to say that they aren't very well done, the recreations of the trenches, weapons, uniforms... in both films are very well done and the battle scenes are considerably better filmed than in J'Accuse. But they are obviously films that are looking back on the First World War from a later date so they have different view of it than J'Accuse, and in my opinion they don't get to the heart of peoples suffering at that time as successfully as J'Accuse.
In fact these three films are best viewed together for they complete each other admirably, J'Accuse shows the horrible consequences of the war on the French people, men and women alike, All Quiet on The Western Front shows the awful conditions and the dehumanizing effect of the war of young idealistic men on the German side on the conflict and Paths Of Glory shows the injustice and the insanity of war from a more detached point of view.
Well I hoped you enjoyed my review, I fear I might of rambled on far to much and maybe over-praised the film, please let me know what you think!
Length 2h 46min (166 min), short version of 1h 49 available of Youtube here!
Not to be confused with a later (1938) film of the same name also directed by Gance.
Find It! Watch It!