Review Date: February 2, 2011
Released by: Sinister Cinema
Release date: ?
Region 0, NTSC
While passing through the airport on my way home from my Christmas travels I spotted a magazine cover in a shop that instantly caught my attention. It was the January 1st issue of The Economist
, and superimposed over a grim picture of a line of battle tanks was a contemplative picture of President Obama. The cover said “Please, not again” and under it there was a caption that read “The threat of war in the Middle East”. Buying a copy of the magazine, I discovered that the articles inside were not quite as apocalyptic as the cover suggested, but there was plenty to be worried about. I have followed events in the Middle East for many years and much of what was reported I already knew, but that didn’t make it any less worrisome. As I write this the government of Israel is not only preparing for the possibility of a pre-emptive air attack on Iran, but is also readying itself for having to fight ground wars against the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and/or the Hamas militia in the Gaza Strip, with the possible involvement of Syria as well. The Jewish state’s possible enemies are making preparations of their own, including stockpiling thousands of missiles and rockets. The latest rumblings of conflict come on the heels of the latest war scare on the Korean peninsula and the upheavals going on at this very moment in Egypt, and one finds oneself wondering whether one or both of these regions will soon explode into renewed hostilities.
Of course, even should war break out, the conflict will no doubt be a short one. Obviously it couldn’t last long, suck in the rest of the world or touch off a global conflict. Or could it? Nobody knows, of course, but it is worth remembering that almost a century ago, in the summer of 1914, a small regional conflict managed to explode beyond its Balkan origins and pull in every great power of the day. Many contemporary observers had expected that a general European war would be terrible, but few expected it to be as terrible or as long as it turned out to be. The Great War, as it was called for a time before an even greater war came to overshadow it, was probably the single most defining event of the twentieth century by virtue of the fact that every other major defining event seemed to grow out of it in one way or another, and although seen from today it may feel like an archaic and distant event, it was a cataclysm that changed forever the lives of everyone who managed to live through it. One of those lucky survivors was a young French filmmaker named Abel Gance, who made it home alive and who, twenty years later, as he watched his country heading towards a newly disastrous conflict, put onto film a defining statement against the cost and futility of war.
France, November, 1918 - The action opens in a small village that is under heavy bombardment by German artillery. Weary, dirty and demoralized, a group of French infantrymen defending the hamlet try to stay alive as best they can. Although the war is almost over, the officers still insist that combat operations continue as normal, and that includes sending men out on the so-called "death patrol" from which almost nobody ever returns alive. A squad of twelve men is chosen at random and given the bad news. An aging, tired soldier named Jean Diaz (Victor Francen
) is not amongst the twelve, but upon discovering that one of the unlucky dozen is a father of four he volunteers to take the man's place, even though it means certain death. At dusk the patrol sets and out and doesn't return, and with morning comes news that an armistice has been signed and the war is over. The bodies of the death patrol are soon brought back from no man's land. One man is missing, another is mortally wounded and the other ten all appear to be dead, including Diaz. As a chaplain conducts a memorial service there is a groaning noise, and the soldiers realize that Diaz is alive but badly wounded, and he is taken to a hospital to recover.
Emotionally and physically scarred by years in the trenches, Jean Diaz is determined that the Great War should be the last war ever fought by mankind, and upon recovering he commits himself to technological research. His hope is that his inventions can end war once and for all, and with the financial backing of an industrialist named Henri Chimay (Jean-Max
) he sets up a small workshop near the great battlefield of Verdun, on the edge of the war cemetery where his comrades from that last patrol are buried. Years pass and Diaz toils away with his research, never forgetting what happened to him. He befriends at café singer named Flo (Marie Lou
) whose lover, a soldier named Giles (Georges Saillard
), was the missing member of death patrol, who died but whose body was never recovered. Flo is there to witness Diaz's condition when he returns from the cemetery in the midst of a great thunderstorm, his hair having turned white from something horrible he saw and can barely describe. After that experience Diaz becomes largely catatonic.
As the 1930's wear on the international situation begins to deteriorate. Tensions are on the rise in Europe and France is once again threatened by war. Troops are being mobilized, armaments are being procured by the government and the Diaz's employer Chimay - now a very powerful industrialist and arms manufacturer - has become involved in politics, giving hawkish speeches and forming his own political party. Diaz, still largely catatonic, retreats into himself, but is pulled out of it when he discovers that his backer went into his workshop and discovered plans for glass body suits that are almost indestructible. Meant by Diaz as a way to prevent war, the suits will now be worn by French soldiers in the coming conflict. Finally poor Diaz has enough. Returning to Verdun, he goes to the war cemeteries and pleads with his fallen comrades to return to life and stop the folly of the coming war. And he gets an answer, not just from the dead men of the last patrol but from all the dead of the Great War. All over Europe twelve million dead men rise from their graves and march upon the living, calling for an end to war for all time!
(subtitled That They May Live
) - or J'Accuse
as its known in native France - is a largely obscure film nowadays, although its director, Abel Gance, is one of the true masters of international cinema. Gance, best known for his sweeping 1927 masterpiece Napoleon
, had been active in film since the early years of the twentieth century. When World War I broke out in 1914 he was in poor health and thus, for a time, avoided the bloody military service that almost every able-bodied Frenchman had to endure. Later on, when his health had recovered and when France's manpower shortage was becoming severe, Gance did find himself in uniform at the front, only to be discharged a short while later when he became the victim of German mustard gas. Most men in his position would have been happy just to have gotten out of that experience alive, but Gance had other ideas. At his request he was allowed to re-enter the army in order to film battle scenes that he planned to use for a new film. After somehow surviving the bitter last months of the war, his combat footage was incorporated into his 1919 film J'Accuse
, of which this 1938 film is reported to be a rather loose remake of.
It should be noted right off the bat that the version of J'Accuse
that I am reviewing here is not Gance's director's cut. It is in fact the American theatrical cut, in French but with English subtitles and credits, and it is substantially altered from the version that French audiences saw in 1938. I have not been privileged to have seen the original French version, which clocks in at over two hours (as opposed to seventy-two minutes in this version), but the changes are said to be substantial, with whole plot elements lost and the ending altered. In the original French version the film is reported to end with the nations of the world, having been understandably intimidated by the army of dead men marching upon them, agreeing to ban war for all time, which allows the dead to return to their graves and resume their eternal slumber. But that is certainly not the ending that appears in this version. Readers will have to forgive me for the extensive quotations that I am about to make from William K. Everson's More Classics of the Horror Film
, which explains what was cut, why the cuts were made and the impact that they had on Gance's vision:
When it got into the U.S. release in 1939, the war in Europe had already begun. In fact, it may well have been the war, giving the film a tragic topicality, that resulted in its even getting an American release. It was heavily cut, retitled That They May Live, released in November of 1939, and substantially trimmed in its climax. It now ended somewhat abruptly; obviously the original ending of the permanent banning of war was no longer apropos. And the film concluded arbitrarily with the dead legions marching through the world, appealing for peace, a poignant (under the circumstances) and timeless climax, but no longer a dramatic one, and one that certainly disturbed the rhythm of Gance’s film.
Gance was a giant among film-makers, and he approached his films like classical works of music. They invariably ran to great length (as witness the silent Napoleon, in its full form close to six hours) and equally invariably ran into problems when they were released outside of France, where distributors (especially in double-bill territories) wanted “normal” pictures of comfortable nine-reel length.
The synopsis cited earlier is essentially of the much cut (seven reel) American version. The original full-length version (happily now in U.S. distribution some 50 years later) was far more complex, as structurally complicated and multi-layered as a novel like War and Peace. The officer who orders the “Death Patrol” at the beginning of the film is the same man who later gives Diaz the freedom to experiment, and then subverts his inventions to wartime use. Diaz was also in love (secretly, and without having betrayed his friend) with the wife of one of his wartime comrades. When that comrade dies, Diaz assures him, to give him peace of mind, that he never had loved her – and never would.
In order to keep his vow, Diaz subsequently denies himself the woman’s love, even though she too loves him. Instead, ironically, she marries the former Commanding Officer and now industrialist who had been responsible for that last suicidal patrol. When they have a child, Diaz finds himself falling in love with her as she grows to maturity and reminds him so much of her mother, and this too is a love he must suppress. Almost all of these important details are missing from the initial, edited U.S. version. The constant self-denial in the Diaz character reinforces the Christ-image that Gance was creating (and perhaps somewhat arrogantly identifying with). All of these, and many other details, were richly woven – or orchestrated – in the full version.
It is a curious aspect of all the Gance films that the most serious damage is done via minor tampering. Seeking to speed up the pace or shorten the length of a Gance film by making trims here and there and removing apparently extraneous scenes and details merely makes remaining scenes and details, inextricably interwoven, confusing and ambiguous. But ruthlessly cutting away all such details and getting down to the bare bones of the plot can work. A 75-minute version of Napoleon (little more than a fifth of the original film) retained a majesty denied to all those interim two- or three-hour versions. Likewise, the message of J’Accuse, and the intensity of its horror elements, work surprisingly well in the short American version.
Now, without having seen the original French version, I can at least concur that the script’s pacifism, and the horror that accompanies the waking of the dead, do come across effectively, enough so that even this heavily altered version is worth watching if no other alternative is available. Chopped down to its bare essentials, J’Accuse
still remains deeply affecting. Gance manages to wring a powerful performance from lead Victor Francen, but what truly stands out is the power of almost every image, even those that occur before the horrifying climax. This is particularly so in the opening minutes, which mix real World War I footage, including stark images of the actual dead on the battlefield, with Gance’s material. The mix is not seamless (the rough quality of the footage, and the frame rate difference makes it obvious what was shot at the front and what was shot for the film), but careful editing and attention to detail give these scenes a power that would be lacking in many of the war films to come later. We meet the men of the “death patrol” in a café as German artillery bombards the village. The men are clearly off duty, but know that soon they will have to return to the trenches and face what’s waiting for them there. As they wait the café singer Flo sings boisterously trying to boost their spirits. Her song is intercut with brief snippets of artillery going off. These edits are quick – almost Michael Bay quick, in fact – and are in fact so brief as to be jarring and disorienting.
The effect is clearly an intentional one. While Gance may not have served for as long as some French veterans, he clearly knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of an artillery attack and saw the way continuous shelling destroyed the nerves of those under bombardment. Contemporary views of World War I often hold that artillery was of little use in trench warfare, which is not entirely accurate. The single biggest killer of the war, more so than poison gas or the machine gun, was artillery, and some bombardments lasted days or even weeks. More so than any other weapon, artillery was responsible for France and Germany and Britain being bled white. Unfortunately there were few military commanders on the western front who truly understood artillery tactics, and thus, while shelling was successfully used to kill huge numbers of people, it was rarely used in ways that allowed one army or the other to win real victories. But it was a truly a weapon of terror, and many first-person accounts of being under shell fire paint horrible images that no movie could probably ever recreate.
While the war scenes have a special intensity, the sequences that follow actually present some of the most haunting moments and images until the climax. As Jean Diaz lies convalescing in an army hospital his hand is grasped by another patient, the other member of the “death patrol” who was wounded. The two grip each other’s hands tightly, and then the other man dies, still holding onto Diaz. An orderly tries to pull the two hands apart and can’t. Later we meet the dead man’s wife and young daughter. The mother has not told the girl that her father is dead and, when the daughter asks why she has to wear black, the mother is forced to make up an excuse. It’s a sad moment, though in a way not as sad as when Diaz’s boss Chimay asks him why he didn’t attend a speech he was giving. Diaz uses this as an opportunity to denounce the war hysteria that is being whipped up and, in front of Chimay and other company executives, launches into a series of accusations that give the film its title. The men around Diaz don’t seem particularly disturbed (at least not in the American version). These men are unambiguous war profiteers, and Diaz’s inventions are making them huge sums of money. Diaz is treated not as a threat to their ambitions but as a harmless, eccentric old crank who has no ability to influence or persuade anybody.
can only work as a horror film through the careful build-up that is now mostly a lost art amongst horror filmmakers. Gance was not trying to make a genre film. He may not have even made a conscious association between it and the foreign horror films that were being released in Europe at the time. But that’s what ultimately comes out, and the scenes of horror, while brief (at least in the American cut) are amazingly effective. But they would have been meaningless without the careful build-up that Gance puts Jean Diaz through, a build-up that is obvious even with the cuts applied to this version. Ultimately J’Accuse
can rightly claim to be the first film to show a mass zombie phenomenon, although how influential it may have been on the zombie films that came in the decades that followed is debatable.
The film also seems to be the first to depict the walking dead as physical monstrosities with ugly deformities, instead of the stiff but decidedly intact undead of movies like White Zombie
. And for these zombies Gance used fewer make-up effects than a modern film would have. Many of them are actual World War I veterans, and their deformities are real. In a modern zombie film an extra will shamble by with a missing eye or a jaw that’s hanging loose, and we know that it’s a make-up effect. But here men will walk by with misshapen faces, with limbs missing, with noses missing, and we know it’s real, and we shudder to think of what happened on the battlefield to cause such a horrible injury. In a movie that was not so earnestly dedicated to its pacifist message this would be a highly exploitive and offensive thing to do, but Gance is so earnest in his message that it is forgivable. He wants his audience to know how horrible and destructive war is, and these poor destroyed faces make that all too clear.
It is tragic that the original French version of J’Accuse
remains unavailable on legitimate DVD, although this soon may be corrected, as it has been reported that Olive Films has licensed it for release in the United States. We can only hope that this year will see a proper, restored version with all the missing scenes included (the full-length French version was available on VHS in this country for a time, but is of course long out-of-print). With its scenes of public chaos, its strong social conscience and its images of misshapen undead men, the movie can be rightly considered to be something of a missing link between the traditional voodoo zombies of the 30’s and 40’s and the flesh-hungry metaphor zombies of Night of the Living Dead
and its sequels. The particulars of Gance’s anti-war politics are often dated, even naïve by twenty-first century standards, but there can be no denying that he tells a strong, unique story with a distinctive and passionate message. That alone would make J’Accuse
notable. But by fusing his anti-war politics with some of the strongest horror images of any production from the time period, he does something that is much more: he creates one of the most unforgettable movies I have ever seen.
Sinister Cinema presents J’Accuse
on burned DVD-R media, and this interlaced transfer was culled from a print in very rough shape, and probably passed through a 3/4" tape master before being converted to digital. Scratches, splices, specks and grime litter the film from beginning to end. Sharpness and clarity are below average, and the contrast often appears blown out, with whites a little too hot and blacks a little too murky. At other times the image takes on a slight greenish tint. It also suffers from registration problems and will frequently jitter in the frame. To top it all off, it appears, judging from the credits, that the left side of the picture is slightly cropped. Basically the presentation is watchable, but it is far below the quality that would be expected from as remastered, mass market release.
The film is presented in French 2.0 Mono, and the audio sounds flat and muffled for the most part. There is a layer of background hissing and popping which permeates a good part of the film, as well as noticeable audio dropouts caused by rampant splices. Dialogue is presented tolerably well (the film contains a few sentences in English, which are easy to understand) and sound effects, particularly artillery explosions, are passable, but the film’s distinctive, doom-laden music score sounds awfully tinny and compressed.
English subtitles are burned into the print, and they are sometimes hard to read, especially when they appear during moments where the background image is white as well.
The only extra is a trailer for The Bat Whispers
, a 1930 old dark house thriller with Chester Morris.
In the seven decades since Abel Gance finished his second version of J’Accuse
the world has continued to burn with conflict, surpassing the fearsome death toll of the Great War many times over. What Gance precisely thought of World War II and the mutually assured destruction doctrine of the Cold War I do not know, but he lived long enough to experience the terror of both. Even in its compromised American version, his film remains a moving anti-war statement and a milestone in the history of zombie cinema. One of the most memorable episodes of the great Masters of Horror
series – Joe Dante’s Homecoming
– was very clearly influenced by it.
This DVD-R is useful as a historical reference of the way that the film was manipulated upon its original American release, but the audio/visual quality on display here is quite bad. Unless viewers are interested in checking out both versions of the movie they would be well advised to wait for the reported Olive Films release.
Movie – B+
Image Quality – D-
Sound - D
Supplements - C
- Running time - 1 hour 12 minutes
- Not rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- French 2.0 Mono
- Burned-in English subtitles
- Trailer for The Bat Whispers