At the outbreak of World War I, Gilbert Demachy, an idealistic young student, enlists
and is sent to the Western Front to fight for his motherland, France. It is not long before
he experiences his first taste of battle, in the muddy wastes of No Man's Land.
Amidst the blazing gunfire and cacophony of exploding shells, he sees his comrades cut down,
one by one. His time away from this battlefield of death is but a brief respite.
Yet, amid these scenes from Hell, Demachy clings to life, hoping once more to be reunited
with the woman he loves…
One of the most realistic and harrowing war films to have been made in France,
Les Croix de bois
quite a punch and bears a favourable comparison
with Lewis Milestone's better known American equivalent,
All Quiet on the Western Front
Based on a well-known novel by Roland Dorgelès (first published in 1919), the film
shows the horrors of the First World War through the eyes of an ordinary young man
and serves as a fitting memorial to the senseless bloodshed, loss and devastation wrought by that conflict.
The film combines some highly imaginative expressionistic touches (most notably,
the final sequence showing the fallen soldiers carrying their wooden crosses into the next world) with a brutal
realism, achieved through some stunning battle scene reconstructions.
The cast comprises mainly veterans from the 1914-18 war, including the
two leads: Charles Vanel and Pierre Blanchar, who both became major stars of
French cinema in the 1930s. This, together with
the grimly matter-of-fact cinematography, gives the film a startling sense of reality
and deeply moving humanity. It is incredible how much
suffering and loss the film manages to convey. The
continual ear-shattering explosions in the seemingly endless battle sequences bring home the unimaginable
horror of trench warfare, whilst the gruesome spectacle of wounded soldiers lying abandoned in the mud,
calling out for help that will never come, cuts into the spectator's heart like a serrated knife.
is not an easy film to sit through, so vividly, so relentlessly does it evoke
the true naked horror of war, yet it demands our attention. It may lack the devastating poetry
of Milestone's film, but it is just as shocking and uncompromising in
its depiction of the mindless slaughter of the so-called Great War.
“Never again” is what the film screams at us in a solemn howl of lamentation. What
a terrible irony that within
seven years of this film's release, the world would was once more be engulfed by war,
so that another generation might be senselessly culled by bombs, bullets and bayonets,
and more fields strewn with wooden crosses.
© James Travers
The above article was written for filmsdefrance.com and should not be reproduced in any medium without the author's permission.
Other recommended drama/war films of the 1930s from France include the following: Rex Ingram's Baroud
Raymond Bernard's Les Croix de bois
Anatole Litvak's L'Équipage
Abel Gance's J'accuse!
Raymond Bernard's Marthe Richard au service de la France