By Christopher Weedman.
The past couple of months have been full of rich rewards for admirers of the late Abel Gance. This brilliant and innovative French film director enriched the visual vocabulary of the early cinema with his silent spectacles J’accuse (1919), La Roue (1923), and Napoléon (1927), which were instrumental in the evolution of a wide range of then-experimental cinematic techniques such as close-ups, mobile camerawork, rhythmic editing, and an early widescreen process called Polyvision. Not only has Kevin Brownlow’s new restoration of Napoléon been released on a breathtaking Blu-ray and DVD by the British Film Institute in the UK, but also Paul Cuff’s recently published book Abel Gance and the End of Silent Cinema: Sounding out Utopia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) reevaluates many of the lingering critical misconceptions about the director’s inability to recapture his early glory after his first sound film, La Fin du Monde (1931). This three-hour sci-fi epic featured Belgian actor Victor Francen as a scientist persecuted for predicting a comet’s impending collision with Earth. The ambitious La Fin du Monde was taken out of Gance’s hands by the financiers and, after multiple reedits, was eventually released in the United States by producer Harold Auten as The End of the World (1934) with a scant 54-minute running time. Only in the impressive, apocalyptic scenes depicting the world in chaos as it is pulverized by a series of hurricanes and floods does this bastardized cut by Auten give any indication of Gance’s original epic vision.
The newfound attention being brought to Gance’s richly-deserving body of work is greatly welcome, especially since the lengthy duration of La Roue (270 minutes) and Napoléon (332 minutes) make them silent cinema masterpieces that are today, sadly, more-often read about in film studies textbooks than actually seen by most cinephiles. On the heels of the restoration of Napoléon is Olive Films’ digitally-remastered edition of J’accuse (1938), Gance’s sound remake of his own 1919 silent classic. This marks the first release of the 1938 version on both Blu-ray and DVD. Admittedly, the remake lacks the epic nature of the original film, but, nevertheless, it holds its own with All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930), Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937), Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957), King and Country (Joseph Losey, 1964), and Life and Nothing But (Bertrand Tavernier, 1989) as one of the most powerful antiwar narratives about the first World War.
Appropriating its title from Émile Zola’s open letter attacking the French government for its role in the injustice surrounding the Dreyfus Affair (published in 1898 in the republican-socialist newspaper L’Aurore, edited by future Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau) (Fuller 75-80), the 1919 version of J’accuse was a sweeping melodrama that is frequently credited as being the first major antiwar film. The story concerns the wartime plight of two French poilu: the sensitive Jean Diaz (Romuald Joubé) and the brutish François Laurin (Séverin-Mars). Both soldiers live in the provincial village of Orneval, where they become rivals due to Jean’s affection of François’ unfaithful wife Édith (Maryse Dauvray). After already enduring an abusive marriage to her husband, Édith is victimized once again when she is kidnapped, raped, and impregnated by German soldiers following the outbreak of World War I. As Jean and François worry about her welfare, they find themselves, in an ironic twist of fate, fighting alongside each other in the trenches. The two become unlikely friends through their mutual love of Édith and respect for each other’s bravery.
Already available in a beautiful restored print (containing the original tinting) on DVD from Flicker Alley, the 1919 version is a silent masterwork boasting an array of haunting visuals that reverberate in the mind, most notably the pervasive death imagery as the characters prepare to go to war: a split-screen insert showing a drawing of a church tolling the “death bell” on the left of the frame, along with an image of dancing skeletons on the right, during a patriotic rally; a skeletal hand holding a scythe that is superimposed on the book of poems that Jean holds (“Les Pacifiques” / “The Peaceful”) when he learns of the news; and the skeleton superimposed through the window as Édith comes to comfort Jean as he reconciles the knowledge that his life will never be the same. This series of images suggest the psychological fears of the film’s characters: particularly the pacifist Jean and the female characters, who lack the romanticism of war possessed by men like François and his father-in-law, Marie Lazare (Maxime Desjardins), a veteran of the Franco-Prussian War. Moreover, they are foreboding omens of how the impending deaths of so many young men will haunt the survivors for years afterward.
While Gance made the 1919 version as an impassioned antiwar statement about what he called “the stupidity of war” (qtd. in Brownlow), he made the 1938 version out of fear that France would soon enter World War II. The 1938 version (labeled in the opening credits as “a tragic portrait of modern times”) opens with a terse warning by its director: “I dedicate this film to the dead of the war of tomorrow, who will no doubt watch it skeptically without recognizing in it their own image.” Reportedly, Gance hoped that a remake of J’accuse would help stave off the war, but these opening words also suggest an acknowledgement that it may not succeed, since many viewers (some of whom would either perish, or enable others to do so) would not heed the film’s pacifist message.
The 1938 version of J’accuse is a partial reimagination-cum-continuation of the 1919 version. Whereas the original film spent the first quarter of its 166-minute running time introducing the narrative’s romantic love triangle and the onset of the war, the 1938 version immerses the audience immediately within the last days of the Battle of Verdun during World War I. This battle along the Western Front between the French and German armies is one of the longest and most devastating battles in world history. The Battle of Verdun lasted 303 days and resulted in an estimated 500,000 French and 450,000 German casualties (Tooley 156). By minimizing the level of romantic melodrama in the narrative, Gance foregrounds the greater agitprop nature of the 1938 version, as well as implies an acknowledgement that the antiwar lessons of the 1919 version may have been, in part, obscured by being too preoccupied with the romantic rivalry between Jean and François.
In the film’s tense opening montage, Gance intersperses actual footage of the battle with the image of a white dove lying dead on the edge of a fountain containing a turned-over crucifix. Artillery fire is seen severing the head of Christ, the force of which causes the body of the dove to fall into the blood-polluted water of the fountain. These symbolic images of pacifism and martyrdom highlight the deadly sacrifices made by the fallen soldiers to help ensure peace for future generations, as well as serve to foreshadow the film’s tragic dénouement – a pivotal scene that I’ll touch upon later.
The audience is re-introduced to the same two poilu from the 1919 version. This time Jean and François are played by two regulars from Gance’s sound period: actors Victor Francen (La Fin du Monde) and Marcel Delaître (Poliche, 1934; Napoleon Bonaparte, 1935; Le roman d’un jeune homme pauvre, 1936; and Paradis perdu, 1940), respectively. “The war has become a private duel between us,” Jean remarks poetically when they encounter each other in the besieged village of Douamont. The men call a truce, but François is later enraged once again when he learns that he will be one of twelve patrouilleurs sent on a suicide mission in the wee hours of November 11, 1918 (a day that, unbeknownst to everyone, will bring the Armistice). Afraid that Jean will marry his wife after his inevitable death, François is only calmed when Jean promises his new friend that he will no longer pursue his love for Édith. Without a reason to live, Jean volunteers to go on the mission alongside François in the place of another soldier, Lamandau, who is the father of four children.
The regiment’s Captain (Paul Amiot) attempts to persuade his superior officer, Henri Chimay (Jean-Max), to stop the mission, since its objective is proven to be unsound. Despite having the authority to call it off until further review, Chimay does not want to risk being reprimanded by headquarters for not following through with orders. The senselessness of the mission coupled with Chimay’s actions provides these moments with a feeling of outrage. Mirroring General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and General Mireau (George Macready) who similarly order the 701st Regiment to take the unconquerable “Anthill” as a means of seeking promotion in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, Chimay represents a strain of the officer class that is more concerned with its own selfish interests and jingoistic delusions than the lives of their men. The fact that news of the cease fire comes shortly after most of the men perish only makes Chimay’s actions more deplorable.
Despite almost being buried alive with the dead, Jean is discovered to be alive and finds himself briefly reunited with François, who is dying on a cot next to him. In a tender moment (evocative of Lew Ayres’ schoolboy-turned-soldier Paul reaching to grab a butterfly at the end of Lewis Milestone’s Oscar-winning All Quiet on the Western Front), Gance frames François extending his hand to his former rival in close-up shortly before his death. Jean may survive his physical wounds, but the emotional scars remain. Over the next two decades, Jean commits himself to honor his fallen comrades by ensuring that another war never occurs. He uses his knowledge of glassmaking and science to develop an indestructible form of glass that he believes will help end all war. However, after suffering a temporary mental breakdown when he learns that World War II is on the horizon, Jean awakens to find that his employer, Chimay (ironically, the same man who refused to call off the mission years earlier), sold his invention to the war effort, in part, to further his own political career.
The 1938 version’s climax is a textbook example of Gance’s strong visual style. In an effort to abruptly end World War II before more bloodshed occurs, Jean calls upon the dead from World War I to return and remind the living how their lives were taken in vain. Gance combines horror with magical realism to show the deceased victims of the Battle of Verdun rising from their graves at the Douaumont ossuary, which many observers have credited as possessing proto-zombie imagery that anticipates George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1967). Among the walking dead is real-life politician André Thome, who is portrayed emerging from the memorial honoring his death at Verdun to join his fallen comrades. This resurrection scene is based on a similar one in the 1919 version, where Jean (who is left a PTSD victim by the war) alerts the villagers that the dead will return and haunt those who benefitted from their demise. Whereas the earlier film left everything ambiguous with the dead as possible projections from the guilty consciences of the villagers, this one gives full credence to the supernatural horror to help ensure that its audience learns the lesson this time around. The otherworldly quality of the scene is enhanced by Gance’s use of superimpositions (recalling the dancing skeletons of the 1919 version) and haunting close-ups of real-life disfigured war veterans belonging to the Union des Gueules Cassées.
As opposed to Olive Films’ excellent special editions of Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948) and John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952), the company’s release of the 1938 version of J’accuse is a no-frills edition lacking the splendid bonus features that made those other discs essential purchases. This one is still worth purchasing, but with some reservations. Without question, Olive deserves to be commended for delivering a splendid-looking remastered print, which, in terms of both picture and sound quality, is vastly superior to the dark and murky print that the Connoisseur Video Collection used for its VHS edition in 1991.
Nevertheless, collectors will want to keep a hold of the old VHS release, since Olive’s print appears to be derived from an alternate cut that eschews this edition’s downbeat ending. This missing ending featured Jean as a martyr dying for the sins of his French countrymen, who burn him alive for resurrecting the dead. The elimination of this scene is lamentable, but somewhat understandable since Gance was well-known for frequently reediting his films after their initial release. The inclusion of this scene would have provided Olive’s print of the film with greater visual and thematic cohesion, because the image of the turned over crucifix at the beginning of the film foreshadows Jean’s eventual martyrdom. One wishes that this scene would have been incorporated by Olive or, at the very least, included as a supplement, especially considering the very high-quality of the rest of their remastered print.
I would strongly recommend watching both versions of J’accuse as evidence of how Abel Gance was able to successfully reconfigure the original 1919 narrative for a new and equally important historical context. The DVD of the 1919 version by Flicker Alley also features two fascinating war shorts (Henri Diamant-Berger’s comedic Paris Pendant La Guerre, 1915 and Donald C. Thompson’s documentary Fighting the War, 1916) and a series of essays by Kevin Brownlow, Leslie K. Hankins, and Annike Kross that are useful in understanding the film’s historical significance and its painstaking restoration by the Nederlands Filmmuseum with the cooperation of Flicker Alley, Lobster Films, and Turner Entertainment. It is unfortunate that similar material was not included in Olive’s release of the 1938 version, since it is an important film that deserves proper critical reevaluation. Perhaps, given the increased interest in Gance’s films, Olive should consider releasing a special edition of J’accuse as part of its Signature series with additional bonus features along these lines and, more importantly, the other cut of the film with the alternate ending, so audiences can judge the merits of both variants.
Christopher Weedman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches courses in Film Studies. His scholarship has appeared in Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Senses of Cinema, and the edited anthology Fifty Hollywood Directors (Routledge, 2015). His interview and career retrospective of British actress Anne Heywood (the Golden Globe-nominated star of the controversial 1967 film The Fox) is in the current issue of Cinema Retro, published in January 2017.
Brownlow, Kevin (2008), “The Waste of War: Abel Gance’s J’accuse,” supplemental essay to J’accuse, directed by Abel Gance (1919; Flicker Alley, 2008), DVD.
Cuff, Paul (2016), Abel Gance and the End of Silent Cinema: Sounding out Utopia, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Fuller, Robert Lynn (2012), The Origins of the French Nationalist Movement, 1886-1914, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, pp. 75-80.
Tooley, Hunt (2016), The Great War: Western Front and Home Front, 2nd edition, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 156.