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.
Optional English subtitles are provided.
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.