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 your heart like a knife.
Les Croix de bois
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.
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