Wooden Crosses (Les croix de bois)
France (1932) Dir. Raymond Bernard
Soul singer Edwin Starr famously asked “War – what is it good for?” and at the risk of sounding flippant, the answer could possibly be “inspiring filmmakers, writers and artists to create classic works about it”. French author Raymond Dorgelès’s novel based on his service during World War I was published in 1919, which director Raymond Bernard turned into this slow burning but frighteningly realistic film.
Set in 1915, the story begins with young law student Gilbert Demachy (Pierre Blanchar) arriving as the newest recruit to 39th infantry stationed in Champagne. Full of energy Gilbert is teased by his fellow soldiers for his enthusiasm, telling him the war is over and he’s missed all the action. This is, of course, as far from the truth as it can get, with the true horrors of this conflict unfolding before his eyes.
At first it does appear to easy sailing for Gilbert, not in the least that his fellow platoon members are a diverse but largely pragmatic bunch – loyal leader Corporal Breval (Charles Vanel), the gregarious Sulphart (Gabriel Gabrio), cowardly cook Bouffiou (Pierre Labry), serious and moody Vieublé (Antonin Artaud), playful Fouillard (Raymond Aimos) and fellow Parisian Vairon (Raymond Cordy) – all representing a cross section of French society. But as time goes on these faces will soon make an exit from Gilbert’s life.
Appearing two years after the Oscar winning Hollywood classic All Quiet On The Western Front Bernard’s film may cover the same subject matter but brings with it many fundamental differences. First, Bernard’s adaptation of Dorgelès work eschews the typical dramatic narrative choosing instead to simply relay a warts and all day in the life of a volunteer soldier.
Secondly, all of the main cast had actually served their country during WWI given them plenty of real life experiences to draw on for their performances. One would have to imagine though that a certain amount of trauma must have plagued them by reliving and re-enacting horrific situations they thought they had left behind in the past. To their credit such negative reactions doesn’t appear to surface in their work while the validity of the action scenes is evident.
Realism and authenticity are the key aims for this film which is why the early going sees the action set in the bunker behind the trenches, a cramped, dark and dirty hideout in which the soldiers spend much of their time waiting for something to happen. While some war films would have us believe it was non-stop explosions and battles, the reality is that there were prolonged periods of quiet and ennui is as much an enemy of the platoon as the Germans were.
This may provide us with some occasional levity through the camaraderie of the squad but this down time also allows us to explore the sadder and more costly effects of this conflict. During a sermon in a local church where the Priest sings Ave Maria the camera pans round to the makeshift hospital in the other half of the church, full of wounded and disabled soldiers. Elsewhere a letter arrives in the mail delivery for a fallen comrade; Gilbert goes to the man’s grave, rips the letter up and scatters it over it, this being Gilbert’s first exposure to a fatality.
Through all this the men manage to keep morale fairly high with songs and games, even taking the inane instructions to clean their boots from a pompous general with good grace. Disruption hits the ranks further when a ten day conflict over an occupied piece of land claims more lives. Depicted on screen over a five minute period the carnage of lifeless soldiers and disembodied corpses tells a pretty clear story without needing to chart the battle in great detail.
A second battle which effectively closes the film is given more time but like the preceding clash, it is a terrifyingly authentic experience to behold. Bernard was given the full backing of producers Pathé-Natan who gave him the budget he wanted to make this as spectacular as possible. This was achieved and then some, with every bit of the budget on the screen in all its explosive, realistic and bombastic glory, with a boost from the succour of an at the time advanced audio track of battleground sound effects.
Interestingly the enemy is never once shown on screen but their presence and effect of their attacks are more than felt. Perhaps this was intentional to make it explicit that the true enemy is the war itself or perhaps it was to avoid the easy trap of turning this into a pro-French army propaganda piece which frankly would have ruined it. This isn’t a film about honouring heroes or even about right and wrong thus the sentiment needs to remain impartial and observational which is how Bernard keeps it.
Films like …Western Front may be the more well known but the influence of Wooden Crosses runs deeper among filmmakers, with nod to the aforementioned battle scenes appearing in many works appearing in its wake to this day. The effects are so stupendous that one can hardly believe they are watching an 83 year old film, standing up against anything from today’s CGI efforts, but having the edge for being constructed and executed with genuine practical effects.
The desperately tragic denouement needs no music, allowing the visual poetry of the moment to say all that needs to be said. This could have been an abundantly message heavy finale but instead, Bernard concisely and provocatively wraps things up on a sombre and sobering note.
Admittedly slow in places, it is the deliberate pacing that allows Wooden Crosses to surreptitiously penetrate one’s emotions even before the physical warfare takes its toll. With many modern war films such as Apocalypse Now upping the ante as far as realistic depictions of conflict, it is a testament to Bernard’s groundbreaking approach that this anti-war polemic still resonates deeply today.