Upon its initial release in 1932, Raymond Bernard’s early-sound war film, Wooden Crosses was hailed as one of the masterpieces of cinema. Since then, it has largely been overlooked in wider discussion of the genre which is a shame, and hopefully something that a new blu-ray release as part of Eureka’s continually interesting Masters of Cinema Collection can help to rectify. Often overshadowed by All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) it is a film equally committed to channelling the horror of the trenches during the First World War making use of a variety of visual techniques to imbue its humane but simple narrative with deeper poetry.
Stripped of all romantic inclination, the plot begins with idealistic youngster Gilbert Demanchy (played by Pierre Blanchar) arriving to take his place amongst the 39th infantry division and is find himself beneath the wing of the genial Sulphart (Gabrial Gabrio). These two and their cohort all remain fairly lightly sketched characters in what is a symbolically realised representation of one company’s voyage through the conflict. As they head to the front, cinematographers Jules Kruger and René Ribault juxtapose painterly static shots of soldiers filing past the camera with heavy boots sloshing mud as they march. Later on, the camerawork shifts to a rattling handheld style during the scenes of heavy warfare – managing to brilliantly capture the immediacy of the action.
Of course, to a modern audience, this may seem old hat, but to think that these sequences came over sixty years before Spielberg’s beach-landing in Saving Private Ryan (1997) is staggering. “This isn’t war, it’s a massacre,” states one soldier after a particularly bloody encounter and Bernard doesn’t shy away from the gruesome aspects of injured men wailing for help from no-mans-land, or a pinned down squad using a fallen comrade as a parapet to duck behind. The encroaching darkness of their situation is echoed in the inky contrast of the visuals that cast the eponymous crosses and gnarled, dying trees in haunting silhouette. The dark of night is also utilised for some of the tensest sequences that see crawling soldiers bereft amongst the barbed wire lit up and exposed by flares streaming overhead.
The crosses, of course, represent grave-markers and appear during the opening titles in which a painting of soldiers slowly dissolves into a field of multiplying crosses. Their most striking use during the film proper sees a platoon super-imposed on the picture, marching skyward with their crosses carried on their shoulders. It is perhaps a little obvious, but has a strong resonance, especially when highlighting the hypocrisy of a victory parade ordered by the military chiefs for those that barely survived. It’s this forthright voice that many most praised the film for, aided by its casting of exclusively war veterans as the 39th, lending further authenticity to a film that valiantly grasped for a truthful telling of what the frontline of The Great War was really like.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson