This is my contribution to the World War One in Classic Film blogathon, co-hosted by Silent-ology and Movies Silently. Please check out both to find a list of all of the blogs taking part in the blogathon.
(Warning: there are what many call 'spoilers' in this essay. However, anyone who has seen a few films about the First World War already knows that it's not going to end well.)
When I saw that there was going to be a blogathon on WWI films, I knew instantly that I wanted to participate. Partly because, despite my general indifference to war films, I find movies about the Great War fascinating. And partly because I've been meaning to watch this particular film for some time and this gave me as good a reason as any to finally do so.
Wooden Crosses (available on DVD from Criterion's Eclipse Series as part of the Raymond Bernard boxset along with Les Miserables), in simple terms, is a stripped-down version of All Quiet on the Western Front. Like that film, it is an adaptation, in this case the 1919 novel of the same name written by Roland Dorgeles, based on his experiences in the war. Like the American film, it follows a young soldier (played by the not-quite-that-young Pierre Blanchar, star of director Bernard's earlier film, The Chess Player) from his entry into the army until his ultimate fate. A law student, Blanchar's Gilbert is a conscript rather than a volunteer, which means that by the time he joins his regiment, they have already seen action (actually, everyone in the film had seen action as they were all veterans of the war). From there we follow him from trench to town to trench to battlefield to town to trench again to battlefield. Plot-wise, it is a standard WWI film. But there is plenty of reasons to recommend it as more than just a French version of Lewis Milestone's masterpiece; it's more than just All Quiet on the Eastern Front.
Not as polished as it's American counterparts in the genre such as All Quiet, Wings or The Big Parade, director Raymond Bernard gives Wooden Crosses a grittier feel befitting the subject. He still gives us some incredible visuals, some of which made me wish it had be shot wide. The battle scenes, which I will talk about at greater length shortly, are among the best shot up to this time, noisy and nerve-racking, but the quieter moments are the ones that will stay with you. A Sunday Mass, with a soldier singing Ave Maria, is held in one half of a church, the other half serving as a make-shift hospital. Gilbert delivering a letter to the grave of one of his fallen comrades, silently contemplating something we can never know, but only imagine. And Gilbert's final moments, like Paul's in All Quiet, but very, very unlike, too. If Wooden Crosses has one thing to say, it is simply 'War is All Hell'.
As mentioned earlier, the battle scenes are remarkable. The first, and most elaborate, is a ten day attempt to drive the Germans from a town. Constant bombardment, booming in every shot, as the regiment moves towards the town. As the days wear on, fewer and fewer soldiers are seen, the landscape apocalyptic. It's a battle of attrition. Bernard shoots the scene using various techniques, the most startling of which is his use of a handheld camera to follow running soldiers. Common today but new in 1932, it adds a jolt of realism into the mix. This battle ends in a cemetery, a bit heavy-handed perhaps, but it also acts as a counterpoint to the end of the final battle. This time it's nothing as grand as saving a town, just a push into no-man's land. But no last minute rescue from the grave. The battle ends, Gilbert, shot in the stomach, waiting through the night for medics to arrive, slowly dying. No quick death like Paul's. War isn't always that merciful.