The following article is MovieFanFare’s contribution to September’s World War One in Classic Film Blogathon co-hosted by Movies Silently and Silent-Ology. You can find a complete list of participating sites here.
As the spring of 1919 bloomed, the fields and valleys of France– as well as those of Belgium, Germany, and other neighboring nations–were still freshly scarred from what was then referred to simply as the World War. Trenches burrowed across a countryside that was already pockmarked by shell craters, and in many places one would come upon the unburied remains of dead soldiers from both sides. After a hard-fought victory for the Allied Powers, the French people–again, not unlike most of Europe and the United States–were more than eager to put the bloody events of the past four-and-a-half years behind them and move on with their lives.
One man who couldn’t do so, however, was acclaimed Paris-born filmmaker Abel Gance, who witnessed firsthand the slaughter on the battlefields of his homeland. From those experiences he would come to write and direct a pair of films, both entitled J’Accuse, that followed the same basic story of love, sacrifice and remembrance but were each heavily influenced by the time in which they were made. These chilling cinematic accusations to his countrymen and the world at large challenged viewers not to so quickly ignore the war’s cost and pleaded for the need to avoid another such conflict. Gance’s efforts as an artist retain their power decades later, while–sad to say–the lessons he sought to convey were doomed to fail.
The first J’Accuse (1919)–the only one currently available on home video–began production as the war was winding down and features scenes from the actual frontlines (the 28-year-old Gance entered the army in 1917 and was medically discharged, but returned to shoot footage from the Battle of St. Mihiel). The film opens in mid-1914 in a Provencal village that’s the setting for a traditional romantic triangle. The sensitive poet Jean Diaz (Romauld Joubé), who composes odes to the area’s pastoral beauty, still pines for his former love Edith (Maryse Dauvray), who was married off by her father to the brutish and short-tempered François Laurin (Séverin-Mars).
The news that war has been declared (announced by a local child) is met with enthusiasm and patriotic fervor by nearly all the townspeople. François, eager to go off to the front, worries about leaving Edith alone near Jean and sends her away to stay with his parents. Jean, meanwhile, turns back to his writing while waiting to be called up to active duty, but finds the sunny landscapes of his imagination tainted by images of dancing skeletons and death. When word comes that Edith has been abducted by German soldiers, a resolute Jean joins officer school and becomes a lieutenant, sent into combat alongside none other than François.
In the heat of combat the former rivals form a grudging admiration for each other as both men wait for news of Edith. But as the film advances to 1918 none of the protagonists return home unscathed. Edith, assaulted and raped in a barn by an enemy soldier (seen as a shadowy hand reaching towards her), now has a young daughter whose very presence François cannot stand. After a brief and painful reunion with his wife, François returns to combat and dies in a hospital from wounds suffered during the St. Mihiel attack. And a feverish and crazed Jean, angered by what he sees as the indifference of his neighbors to what has gone on around them (from unfaithful wives to profiteering businessmen), assembles them and tells them of a fantastic vision he had, in which the war’s dead rise up around him.
“Friends, the time has to find out if our death has done any good,” proclaims one of the spectral soldiers. “Let us go home to see if they are worthy of our sacrifice.” This army of the dead–which featured wounded veterans and as well as active servicemen, some of whom were likely killed before the film’s release–marches down country lanes (in one scene Gance depicts their macabre procession simultaneously with a victory parade under the Arc de Triomphe) and reaches the little town where Jean seemingly summoned them to confront those they left behind. The terrified and chastened villagers vow to remember their fallen loved ones, who return to the grave. Meanwhile, Jean himself picks up his manuscripts of the hopeful verses he crafted years before, only to find that, as a title card reads, “The solider in him had killed the poet.”
Nearly two decades later, with the nations of Europe rapidly lurching headlong into another conflict that would engulf the entire continent, Gance decided to revisit J’Accuse with a new take on the story. This 1938 film did away with most of the earlier picture’s romantic subplot, showing Jean Diaz (Victor Francen) and François Laurin (Marcel Delaître) already reconciled with each other and ready with their fellow infantrymen to take part in one of the campaign’s final battles. “This will be the last war,” Diaz tells everyone. “I swear it to you. No one will forget your sacrifice.”
As it turns out, only Jean comes away with his life. Haunted perhaps by what we now call “survivor’s guilt,” Jean vows to honor his fallen comrades by helping put an end to warfare. Becoming a scientist and working in a lab near the Verdun battlefield, Jean spends years developing a bulletproof glass as hard as steel, which he earnestly–if somewhat naively–thinks will make guns and artillery obsolete. When his invention is co-opted and put to use by the military, an enraged and frantic Jean visits the memorials at Verdun and implores the dead soldiers buried there–French, German, British, American, et al.– to leave their resting place and descend upon the living in protest.
And descend they do: limbs gone, eyes and noses missing, faces deformed, in a sequence that contains eerie parallels to such ’60s fright fare as Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead, but with actual battle-scarred veterans supplementing the make-up and costumes Gance employed. Even phantom aviators come down from the skies in what can only be called “ghost airplanes.” “Fill your eyes with this horror,” Jean tells the living fleeing in terror from the apparitions silently advancing towards them, and “weapons will fall from your hands…the dead will save you from yourselves.”
Abel Gance was one of the most innovative filmmakers of the early 20th century, pioneering such techniques as rapid editing, split-screen and montage, and multi-camera shots, and both versions of J’Accuse show off his technical expertise (his continued use of such tricks in the 1938 remake may seem outdated to some, but help give it a timeless and fantastic look that enhances the otherworldly subject matter). In the 1919 J’Accuse, color tinting is effectively used to convey the emotional impact of several scenes, and a sequence of soldiers reading letters from home offers title cards featuring actual letters from those in combat. The “love triangle” storyline may seem clichéd by today’s standards (and might well have even to contemporary audiences), but the picture’s climactic sequences make up for it in their potency. Gance does, however, seem to shy away somewhat from an all-out denouncement of warfare, instead simply chastising his countrymen for forgetting the dead (in fact, an edited print of the movie that played internationally eschewed much of the anti-war sentiment and left the deceased marchers seemingly content with what they found on their ghostly sojourn). It was a resolution that, with the “war to end all wars” just concluded, the director apparently felt was enough of a warning to the world.
That repentant and morbidly hopeful conclusion was nowhere to be seen in the 1938 remake, whose dedication titles read “To the war dead of tomorrow, who will doubtless look at it (the film) skeptically, without recognizing themselves in its images.” Even as Gance’s “walking dead” trudged wearily back to Verdun and his heartfelt plea for pace concluded, the director–as well as his audiences in France and around the globe–seemingly knew what was just around the corner. Few among them, however, would have dared imagine that there were horrors coming which would make the most chilling scenes in either version of J’Accuse pale in comparison.