Francesco Rosi's 1970 anti-war film Many Wars Ago (Uomini Contro) is a bleak portrayal of the politics of combat and the very real cost of battle. Though set on the front lines of World War I, where Italian artillery square off against their Austrian enemy, it feels very much a product of its time, in touch with the Vietnam conflict and all of the ways that war was going wrong.
Many Wars Ago is basically a three-way conflict between two lieutenants and their general. Out in the muddy trenches, a combat unit is tasked with taking back a useless hill that serves as little more than a point on a map. General Leone (Alain Cuny, The Milky Way, Emmanuelle) is a strident peacock who goes by the book and insists that war is a noble and necessary effort. Not just necessary for settling disputes, but as an ongoing concern. Amongst his divisions is a group led by Lt. Ottolenghi (Gian Maria Volonté, A Fistful of Dollars), an experienced pragmatist who sees that much of what high command sends down to the lower troops is pointless, he just believes in picking the right time to stand against the nonsense and rein in the chaos. Alongside him is Lt. Sassu (Mark Frechette, Zabriskie Point), a younger officer and an idealist. He has yet to learn how to apply his beliefs in the field.
The bulk of Many Wars Ago's running time is concerned with the multiple failed attacks on the hill and the morale-busting waits in between. The troops at first attempt a mutiny in protest of too many days spent digging without rest, but that only ends with the firing squad. Then the situation escalates to a refusal to fight in the field when the tide is clearly against them. None of the rebellions are entirely successful, but each foments the next attempt.
The politics in these uprisings are explicit. Ottolenghi expresses frustration that both sides of the line are manned by the poor who fight in service to the rich, while Sassu decries the greed of war profiteers and other officers question the legitimacy of codes of conduct written under different circumstances in a completely different century. No one seems to have any real belief in any particular cause that might have brought them there. WWI is just something that is happening and you either fight or you don't. Even Leone carries on in search of glory. He otherwise has no clear dog in this fight.
In terms of structure, Many Wars Ago owes a lot to Kubrick's Paths of Glory, but the execution is purely Italian. Rosi's approach to the combat is dirty and naturalistic, with carefully chosen moments of gore used to underscore the consequences of bad strategies. There are a couple of instances when he leans too heavy on melodrama, letting composer Piero Piccioni (Swept Away) overtake the drama with grandiose music, but for the most part, the director otherwise avoids predictable clichés or sentimentality. Though Frechette is undoubtedly meant to be the star of the picture, he is overtaken by Volonté, whose forceful charm dominates every scene he is in. Still, this serves the narrative well, as eventually the veteran soldier passes the torch to the newcomer, leading to a powerful ending that should leave even the most staunch hawks feeling queasy about the price fighting men pay in service to flag and country.
Raro has created their new high-definition transfer of Many Wars Ago using restored 35mm elements overseen by the Turin National Film Museum and Francesco Rosi, and the result is a fairly good-looking Blu-ray. AVC-encoded at a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the color picture has a nice surface grain and well-rendered colors that preserve the look of the original film stock. The image is free of dirt or debris, and the print is stable without any jump cuts. Detail is fine, as is the resolution, again seeming to keep in line with the 1970 origins.
A stereo DTS-HD Master Audio mix possesses good tones and presents the audio clearly. Music sounds excellent, as do the sound effects, particularly the ongoing gunfire.
Optional English subtitles are provided.
Many Wars Ago has been packaged in a Blu-Ray case with a paper slipcover. Inside the case, you'll find a nice booklet featuring photos and liner notes. The inside cover and outer cover have different illustrations, which is a nice change from most step-and-repeat slipcovers.
On-disc extras include a short demonstration of the before and after of the restoration, as well as a new interview with Rosi, clocking in at 28 minutes, and detailing the hurdles he had to overcome to bring this film to the screen.
If you have a Blu-ray drive on your computer, you can also get your virtual hands on a copy of the original screenplay for Many Wars Ago.
Highly Recommended. An effective, potent, and still-relevant war movie from Italy in 1970, Many Wars Ago tells a straightforward tale of things going all crooked out on the front lines of WWI. Led by the strong character actor Gian Maria Volonté, director Francesco Rosi's cast of disgruntled soldiers brings the bloody tale to vivid life. The movie is politically righteous without being overbearing or preachy, letting the actual story do the heavy lifting, leading to a tough finale that carries the message home to a devastating effect.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.