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Hill territory in Yugoslavia stands in for the Asiago Plateau, as Italians face off against Austrians in 1916. Other officers can't believe that the young Lt. Sassu (Mark Frechette) asks for combat duty, as the trench warfare exacts a murderous toll on officers and soldiers alike. Sassu soon discovers that his division commander General Leone (Alain Cuny of La dolce vita) is an incompetent who squanders the lives of his troops on outdated, foolish strategies. Leone lectures Sassu on military decorum and privilege. He takes advantage of any and all opportunities to execute his own men, to enforce his twisted ideas of morale. The charismatic Lt. Ottolenghi (Gian Maria Volonté) must be sneaky to disobey insane orders, as when Leone orders a man shot for shouting the wrong thing in combat. Leone insists on ordering hundreds of men to charge enemy machine guns in broad daylight; the spectacle is so awful that the Austrians stop shooting and beg the Italians to return to their trenches. In response, Leone orders his own gunners to fire on the men from behind. The murderous, maniacal actions of Leone and his Major Malchiodi (Franco Graziosi) lead to a disorganized mutiny, which has disastrous consequences.
Director Rosi, actor Volonté and writer Tonino Guerra made Uomini contro ("Men Against") as a leftist statement. The story's real fight is not between countries but between classes. The ruling nobles and elites expend most of their effort punishing the poor Southern Italians that make up the bulk of their fighting force. The socialist Ottolenghi is a man of the people who understands that the (often illiterate) regulars have no idea what they're fighting for, and know only that their lives mean nothing to their superior officers. As for General Leone, he behaves as if feudal privilege and brutality were still the norm in the 20th century. Lt. Sassu is from the same social stratum as his commander, and feels compelled to obey commands no matter how insane they become. When he loses his equilibrium and commits a sensible act of murder under fire, Sassu is the first to condemn his actions.
Director Rosi conveys the atmosphere of the battlefield in this hilly, often foggy terrain where the men are always cold. His shots and compositions are never lazy, but the movie is not particularly distinguished along these lines; a zoom lens gets plenty of use. Some of the battle scenes, particularly a night assault, are quite striking. The film presents appallingly inhuman scenes of injustice and cruelty, which sometimes seem as absurd as something from Catch-22. In one grotesque episode Leone sends a squad of men out wearing pathetic 'experimental' armor. They look like robots from a Republic serial. Not only are their legs and arms exposed, but any metal capable of repelling machine gun bullets would be far too heavy: the poor men are massacred like guinea pigs in tinfoil. Leone reacts to the slaughter as if it were an annoying inconvenience.
Many Wars Ago is both more courageous and morally honest than Kubrick's Paths of Glory, which frequently devolves into an acting showcase for the grandstanding Kirk Douglas. Douglas's Colonel Dax floats heroically above the hypocrisy around him, and is given the luxury of screaming his outrage at the faces of his villainous superiors: "I think you are a degenerate!" Francesco Rosi's film critiques the militarism of his own country, a stance that did not amuse conservative audiences. Douglas's film is an American production filmed in Germany that slams the French Army, as if that country had a corner in heinous military practices. Had Douglas and Kubrick filmed a book smearing the reputation of the U.S. Expeditionary Forces, right-wingers would have run them out of Hollywood.
Mark Frechette is presumably dubbed in Italian but communicates well his character's misplaced idealism. Alain Cuny epitomizes the loony, contemptuous man of authority who thinks that human lives are his to squander at will. Fresh from his triumph in Elio Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, Gian Maria Volont&e; gives a refreshingly understated performance as the one officer who is truly the soldier's friend. In a brief bit as a nurse tending to Lt. Sussu we find none other than Daria Nicolodi, in what the IMDB lists as her first film appearance.
Kino Lorber and Rarovideo's Blu-ray of Many Wars Ago is a handsome transfer of this obscure color feature, with excellent audio (in Italian with removable subtitles). Although clearly intended for widescreen matting, at at least 1.66:1, the transfer is full frame. This choice leaves dead space above and below the relevant action, and compromises the compositions of the famous Pasqualino De Santis, the cameraman responsible for Rosi's The Moment of Truth, Visconti's Death in Venice and Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. Francesco Rosi approved the transfer so may have preferred the non-theatrical aspect ratio.
The melancholy music score is by Piero Piccioni. The dubbing for Mark Frechette is remarkably good.
Francesco Rosi appears in a relaxed half-hour interview, and a before & after restoration comparison is offered. An illustrated twenty-page booklet contains liner notes by Lorenzo Codelli, writings by director Rosi and a number of critical responses to the film, among them Tullio Kezich, Alberto Moravia, Michel Ciment, Gene Moskowitz, Gary Crowdus, Piero Piccioni, Tonino Guerra and Gian Maria Volonté.
A cover blurb tells us that the restoration is a "New HD Transfer from Original 35mm Negative Print." Unless film terminology has changed, the line would seem to be self-contradictory.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Many Wars Ago Blu-ray rates:
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.