Important cinema is a phrase that has evolved throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, in 2015 it has more to do with the message that a film champions or the reputation of the director involved. Sadly, ‘important’ as an adjective has become tantamount to cultural snobbery. That hasn’t always been the case; Masters of Cinema are the premium home label dealing in the backbone and best that the history of cinema has to offer – the heartbeat of important cinema. As much as the (relative) guy on the street would like it to be so, not every title the Eureka sub-label drop can be such a titan. That is where this label proves their worth, in bringing the forgotten back into the limelight – a classification that defines their latest release, Wooden Crosses.
Raymond Bernard’s 1932 film, Wooden Crosses is a key title in the history of the war film. From a personal perspective its classification as such is a source of debate; historically, important films can have legendary status by being very modern in their construct, visual potency as well as by other means. Using Master of Cinema’s back catalogue as examples, Fritz Lang’s silent filmography, Madame Dubarry, Wings and highlights of Silent German Expressionism are all significantly important articles that transcend time. Wooden Crosses may not be as influential as the aforementioned, yet it still possesses a similar (yet less fashionable) reputation by merely being an early ringleader behind the horror of war sub-genre.
Taking place at the back end of World War I, Bernard’s adaptation of a Roland Dorgelès novel follows a French platoon as they move from one war zone to the next – the produce of which sees the film become episodic. Starting with hope, songs and camaraderie, the platoon triggered France’s enemy to retreat with minimal losses, a moment of reprieve in which Pierre Blanchar (Gilbert) joins the platoon. This gentle pace starts to become the norm with the squad moving from one place to the next with no resistance, a quietude that sees the men not shooting their guns for months at a time; a tranquillity that subsides to be replaced by the utter despair of the battlefield.
This episodic approach pays dividends, with these capsules highlighting the life that was lost during the Great War. The highlight of the first hour is particularly potent, our ensemble of soldiers are pinned down by the faceless enemy planting mines nearby, a situation that is evaded by the passing of one shift to the next. The inevitable explosion is one of relief and distress, relief that the protagonists survived but distress with the replacement squad marching to their deaths to complete a shift – nothing noble or heroic. The centrepiece which the film builds towards takes up second hour wherein the plucky platoon is torn asunder by a bombardment of canon-fire. An impressively staged set-piece conveyed by practical effects and scarily convincing stunt work, a one/two that makes the film all the more credible.
The issue at the core of Wooden Crosses is articulation. The Wooden Cross is the perfect coda for wartime loss but the method director Bernard adopts is patently unambiguous. Overlaying soldiers carrying the burden of their own wooden cross as the other interlaced image sees the men march to the next battle. Such visuals are more evocative of an over-ripe propaganda piece than a dramatic probe into senseless loss of life that the director was shooting for. Furthermore, for a film seeking to arouse sympathy, the character work is scarce. The only vaguely memorable character lingers thanks to the heightened malice he left for those he’s survived by; even the cornerstone in Gilbert is a mere spectator.
There is a debate to be made that Wooden Crosses depicts the ordinary nameless dead as retaliation to the cloying sentimentality found in heroic war pictures of the time. However for that argument to hold any traction the issue of execution has to be addressed and Bernard’s direction doesn’t translate this message effective to a medium as dramatic as film. There are moments of savage beauty and hopeless suffocating loss, but for every such moment there is another that rings hollow and with shrieking melodrama. A self-contradictory picture if ever there was one.
- New HD 1080p presentation of the film from Pathé’s astonishing 2014 4K restoration
- Optional English subtitles
- Video interview with historian Marc Ferro and film historian Laurent Veray
- A short documentary on the new restoration
- Wooden Crosses: A Sonic Adventure, documentary exploring early sound design
- Archival interview with Roland Dorgelès
- Archival interview with director Raymond Bernard
Vintage 1914 newsreels
- Documentary piece on early 20th century poster artist Adrien Barrère
- The Absent Battle, the Omnipresent War, a collection of photography from WWI taken by André Schnellbach who served with Dorgelès in the 39th
- Booklet featuring a new and exclusive interview by film critic Emmanuel Burdeau, and rare archival material