One of the first great anti-war films was Abel Gance's J'Accuse.
Filmed near the end of WW I and released in 1919, six years before King Vidor's
The Big Parade, the movie is a powerful indictment about the horrors
of war as well as a ground breaking and technically innovative piece.
Flicker Alley, in association with Lobster Films has now released the restored
version of this important film on DVD. The most complete version of
the film since its original screening in 1919, this two-disc set presents
the wonderfully restored film as well as some very nice extras.
Edith (Maryse Dauvray) is married to the gruff and stern hunter François
(Séverin-Mars). She doesn't love him and was forced into marriage
by her father who respects the rugged outdoorsman. Edith is really
in love with a poet, Jean Diaz (Romould Joube), and the two try to sneak
away for a quiet moment together whenever they can.
Things are interrupted when war breaks out. The citizens are elated
that they'll finally get a chance to bet the Huns, and François enlists
immediately. Jean, a member of the reserves, doesn't have to report
for 40 days however.
On a quick stop over after basic training, François discovers a love
letter to his wife from Jean. Enraged, his first thought is to kill
the young man, but his father-in-law talks him out of it. After all
if he does that, he won't be able to fight. Instead, he sends his wife
off to live with his parents in the mountains.
Things don't go as planned, and Edith is captured by Germans on her way to
her in-laws, taken prisoner and brutally raped, repeatedly. When Jean
hears of this, he moves up his call-up date and goes to the front to rescue
the woman he loves. There he is stationed with François, and
while the two initially hate each other, they soon realize that they are
fighting for the same thing. While the two men are bound together by
love for the same woman and the horrors of war, things soon take a more tragic
turn that will leave no one unscathed.
This is a powerful film that leaves quite an impression. Gance told
the French government that the film could be used as a recruiting tool, so
they allowed him to film at the front (he captured part of the Battle of
St. Mihiel) and the footage was used in the movie. He was also able
to use soldiers on leave as extras in the climactic scene where the dead
come back to life. Most of the men used in this scene were in the army
and were tragically killed weeks later. Still, they had seen battle
in the trenches of France and you can tell by the looks on their faces that
they weren't acting so much as reacting to what they had experienced.
In addition to using real soldiers, Gance employed many innovative techniques
to get his point across. He would cross cut between two images to give
the aspects of one to another. A good example of this is when François
comes home after hunting with a dead dear. Gance quickly cuts between
the man's face and that of his snarling dog to show how vicious François
Another impressive scene, cut not quite as quickly, shows Jean reading his
poem "Ode to the Sun" to his mother one evening while across town his love
is being forced to have sex by her husband. The juxtaposition between
the terrified woman and the happy poet is striking and effectual.
There's also a lot of superimposition used through the film, to great effect.
Jean is writing a book of poems, "La Pacifiques", but when war is declared
the skeletal hand and scythe of death appear over the cover of the book.
There are also several scenes of skeletons dancing in a circle superimposed
over the city to foreshadow the death that will come.
Gance didn't need to use editing tricks to make powerful statements however.
One of the scenes that will stay with viewers is a young child, still in
diapers, running up to his playmates and declaring "It's war!"
Another simple yet memorable sequence shows the preparations across the town
as men are getting ready to go off to war. Instead of using wide shots
however, Gance only shows the hands of the men and their loved ones:
A small child putting his petit hands in those of his father, a man lighting
a candle and putting his hands together in prayer, and a husband and wife
clutching each other as they are packing a satchel. These tender and
brief moments succinctly illustrate how the families were feeling without
becoming melodramatic or slowing the pace down.
Of course the most amazing scene in the film is the climax, where a crazed
man imagines all of the dead soldiers from the war getting up and going back
to their home towns to see if their sacrifice had been worth while.
It's an impressive scene and really drums home the director's point.
The film includes a new score composed and conducted by Robert Israel and
performed by the Robert Israel Orchestra. I really enjoy full orchestra
scores, and this one was very good. Several different styles were used
to get across the feelings portrayed on the screen and it worked very well.
I especially liked the march that was played during the scene where François
was informed that Edith was captured by the Germans. Being a recent
score there were no audio defects worth noting.
The restoration of this film was done by the Nederlands Filmmuseum with the
cooperation of Lobster Films, Flicker Alley, and Turner Entertainment.
The core of this version comes from the only existing color tinted version
of the film still in existence (held by the Nederlands Filmmuseum) and a
50 year old restoration done by the Cinematheque Francais. These, along
with several other edits of the film (including one reel of original camera
negative) were used to create the final 3525 meter film, the longest version
since the original opening in 1919 and nearly 500 m longer that the French
The image (tinted and toned) is superb. It really looks wonderful.
The level of detail is excellent and the contrast is very good. Viewers
can tell when the film switches between various master copies, as some of
the prints weren't as tight and crisp as others, but there wasn't any section
of the film that looked bad. This is a truly remarkable restoration
that looks wonderful on DVD.
There are a couple of great extras on the second disc; two short films shot
in France during WWI. The first is "Paris During the War" (1915) a
humorous look at people living in Paris during the War to End All Wars.
It's amusing and worth watching for the nearly empty streets. The second
is "Fighting the War" (1916) which adventurer Donald Thompson films scenes
in the trenches, artillery firing, and even a dog fight from the air.
This film is an amazing record.
There's also an informative 20 page booklet with an essay about J'Accuse
by Kevin Brownlow. He reminisces about his first viewing of the film
as well has interviewing Able Gance. There are also shorter pieces
about the restoration and the influence Gance had on novelist Virginia Woolf.
This is a truly great film. A true piece of film history, it
is one of the first, if not the first anti-war movies. The fact that
it was filmed during WWI and has such a large scope is truly impressive.
Not only is it an early pacifist film, but it's also an incredible movie
in and of itself. Gance crafted a beautiful gem of a film and it's
still powerful nearly 90 years later. Flicker Alley and Lobster Films
have put together a wonderful package with an amazing looking transfer and
some great extras. This set come highly recommended.