Le Miracle des loups (1924)
aka: Miracle of the Wolves
A film directed by Raymond Bernard

Genre: War / History / Drama / Romance / Action

Film Review

Le Miracle des loups photo
It is no exaggeration to say that, in the immediate aftermath of World War I, French cinema was well and truly in the doldrums. A scarcity of resources coupled with ever-growing competition from the other side of the Atlantic meant that every French film director had his work cut out, but by the mid-1920s French cinema was beginning to enjoy a spectacular reversal of fortune. Spearheading this unexpected renaissance was Raymond Bernard's Le Miracle des loups, a lavish historical drama which, with a budget of eight million francs, was one of the most expensive films ever made at the time. The phenomenal success of this film not only inflated the ambitions of French filmmakers and producers, it also raised the quality bar expected by mainstream audiences, resulting in a foray of impressive super-productions to rival anything being made in Hollywood during this extraordinary decade.

What makes this all the more surprising is that Raymond Bernard was not, at the time, an esteemed auteur with a stack of great films already under his belt. He was a young and comparatively inexperienced jobbing film director, mostly preoccupied with adapting the plays of his illustrious father, Tristan Bernard, for Gaumont, having worked as an assistant to Jacques Feyder. The 33-year-old Bernard had yet to make a name for himself but he had great ambitions, and these led him to leave Gaumont and form his own production company, the Société des Films Historiques, with two well-known writers, Henry Dupuis-Mazuel and Jean-José Frappa. The first film this trio tackled was an adaptation of Dupuis-Mazuel's recently published historical novel, Le Miracle des loups, a fictional 15th century romance woven into an authentic account of Louis XI's attempts to form a united France after the 100 Years' War. The film's success was followed by that of Le Joueur d'échecs (1926), again directed by Bernard and based on another of Dupuis-Mazuel's novels. These two films established Raymond Bernard's reputation as a serious filmmaker in France, and his success continued well into the sound era, with such films as the WWI drama Les Croix de bois (1932) and epic Victor Hugo adaptation Les Misérables (1934).

Le Miracle des loups has been described as the French equivalent to America's The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the influence of the latter film's director, D.W. Griffith, is readily apparent in the film's elaborate and astonishingly convincing battle sequences. Bernard's main inspiration was in fact another D.W. Griffith film, Intolerance (1916), whose siege of Babylon provided a template for the siege of Beauvais at the end of Bernard's film. Filmed mostly on the historical ramparts of Carcassonne (because those of Beauvais no longer existed), with four thousand extras roped in to play the opposing armies and besieged inhabitants of the town, this is one of the most spectacular action sequences to grace any French film, and it still has a jaw-dropping impact. Some slick editing and daring camerawork bring an appalling sense of reality to these scenes of mayhem and destruction, holding the spectator's attention in a vicelike grip as the visual extravaganza builds to a cataclysmic finale.

The film boasts two other set-pieces which are just as remarkable. The Battle of Montlhéry, the first of the fierce skirmishes to be depicted on screen, contains the film's most shocking images and brought a stark new realism to the portrayal of medieval combat in cinema. Not content with filming the battle from a distances, as was typically done at the time with films of this nature, Bernard takes us right into the heart of the conflict by using a lightweight portable camera, the Debrie Sept, which Abel Gance would later use extensively on Napoléon (1927). Romantic ideas of medieval warfare are brutally undercut by the stark images that Bernard throws at us, of human heads being crushed to pulp and swords being ripped from the mutilated carcasses of dead and dying soldiers. As in his subsequent Les Croix de bois, Bernard never lets us forget the savagery and degrading inhumanity of war.

The other stand-out episode, which occurs midway through the film, is the one in which the heroine, Jeanne Fouquet, is miraculously saved from her enemies by the timely intervention of a pack of wild wolves. What begins as a weird, fairytale-like digression from the main drama concludes with another burst of visceral horror as the wolves suddenly become animated and starting biting lumps out of Jeanne's pursuers. As the wolves and dogs employed in this sequence were in fact as tame as poodles or half dead it is a testament to the skill and commitment of everyone involved (the cameramen, stuntmen, editor and director) that what ended up on the screen is so nightmarishly authentic. In one shot, you'd swear a poor actor had his hand bitten off.

There is more to Le Miracle des loups than its three set-pieces (four if you include the lively festival which opens the film and provides an ironic counterpoint to its apocalyptic ending). It is a compelling, well-structured drama that effectively combines romantic and political intrigue, well-served by a formidable cast of actors from the French stage. Leading the company is a suitably morose and mercurial Charles Dullin - his Louis XI isn't so much a benign monarch (even if his aim of unifying France is presented as a noble one), as a constantly calculating strategist, of the kind who could probably have taught Niccolò Machiavelli a thing or to. With his imposing bear-like physique Vanni-Marcoux's Charles the Bold makes an almost surreal contrast with Dullin's spindly King Louis, although it is a shame that the actor's distinctive voice remains unheard. One of France's leading opera singers, Vanni-Marcoux appeared in a few other films, but we only ever get to hear him in one film, Marc Allégret's Sans famille (1934).

The conflicted knight Robert Cottereau, a man tragically torn between love and duty, is admirably played by another fine stage actor, Romuald Joubé, who is best known for playing the poet Jean Diaz in Abel Gance's J'accuse (1919). Yvonne Sergyl makes a surprisingly feisty heroine as Jeanne Fouquet, coming into her own in the battle scenes at the end of the film, where, as an axe-wielding warrior she acquires the soubriquet Jeanne Hachette. A future star of French cinema Albert Préjean appears several times in the film in the capacity of a stuntman (he is one of the unfortunates who gets mauled by the wolves). Armand Bernard (no relation to the director) provides some welcome comic relief, just as he had done in the role of Planchet in Henri Diamant-Berger's Les Trois mousquetaires (1921).

After its premiere at the Paris Opéra on 13th November 1924, in the presence of such important personages as the French President Gaston Doumergue, Le Miracle des loups went on to become a major critical and commercial success. One reviewer who didn't think much of it was Abel Gance, who dismissed it as a bad film lacking in both art and drama. The American critics were almost as scathing of the film, but none of this prevented it from being a major landmark in French cinema. Bernard was soon being feted as France's answer to D.W. Griffith and the film's success encouraged filmmakers to attempt even grander cinematic pageants. With the advent of sound, Le Miracle des loups was re-edited and re-released in 1930 as a sound version, running to 73 minutes. The film was remade in 1961 by André Hunebelle with Jean Marais taking the lead role in a lacklustre crowdpleaser that can scarcely hold a dead match let alone a candle to the original. Recently restored, Raymond Bernard's first historical epic blazes with bravado and brilliance - one French film from the silent era that will definitely take your breath away.
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Film Credits

Directed by Raymond Bernard
Starring: Vanni Marcoux, Charles Dullin, Yvonne Sergyl, Romuald Joubé, Armand Bernard, Ernest Maupain, Fernand Mailly, Gaston Modot, Philippe Hériat, Raymond Bernard
[Read more...]

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