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Reading the Absolutist last week, a British novel of war in the trenches, WW I, I was reminded of the very powerful 1932 French film, Wooden Crosses, (Le croix de bois),  based on a 1919 novel of the same name by Roland Dorgeles.

Wooden Crosses film poster FranceThe movie, directed by Raymond Bernard, with none of the technical film making equipment used to make movies of the same war, more recently, such as Passchendaele (2008) or The Trench(1999) creates the effects of the trenches and the fear like no other movies of its time, and few following.

We know what we’re in for with the great symbolic opening of ranks of soldiers marching into a fade of ranks of white crosses, virtually identical in column, row and number.  A cut to the beginning of the hostilities, which we’ve read about in every account of that war, shows the jubilation in the streets when war is declared — of man, woman and child.  Young men rush to sign up; young women rush to embrace them.

Before long these “boys” are crawling, under fire, through the mud and under barbed wire, praying only to stay alive.  Sleep was hard to come by, and the eatable food not much easier.

The powerful central scenes show two platoons, trading off between watch standing and trying to rest in tunnels branching off the trenches.  As they are down there, eating, joking, trying to sleep, they begin to hear the sound of digging.  Terror sets in.  It must be the Germans, sapping beneath their shelters to plant mines and blow them to kingdom come.  Panic sets in.  The officers tell them to calm down, and stay put.  They stay but do not master their fear. Only one cynic manages, “We’ll all be dead before we’re blown up.”  They pray their turn for the watch comes before the mines go off.  It does and as they march away and their relief piles into the tunnels for food and sleep, we hear the explosions and see the dark smoke rising.  Those who escaped turn their heads and march on.

Comic/sad scenes of mail call.  Some receive letters, some do not.  Mail comes for those no longer there to read it.  A friend takes the letter out to the dead man’s headstone and tears up the letter over the grave.  A letter from a wife provokes jealousy instead of tenderness as the exhausted soldier imagines a rival in her arms at home.

A scene of high symbolic order as the pile out of a church, serving as a hospital, and are pinned down in a graveyard.  One gripes, “Killed defending a cemetery!  They’ll bury us alive, for sure!”

The man who was consumed with jealousy is shot trying to get water for his comrades.  When they get him back, in his death agony he says to tell his wife ‘he spits in her face, her and that guy.’  Then he changes his mind, ‘No, no!  Tell her, for the sake of my little girl, tell her I forgive her.’

This in the midst of continuous gunfire, grenades being thrown and exploding near by.  An old timer tells a first timer, ‘You’ll get your cross all right, if not a Cross of War, then a wooden cross.”

The movie was filmed, in part, in Champagne, the chalky fields of north eastern France, now known for the sparking wines of the same name.  During the war, it was known for the horror of the fighting.  The famed German novel, Storm of Steel, by Ernst Junger, starts as the new recruits ‘march through the claggy soil of Champagne,'[Michael Hoffman translation.]. In fact, Junger’s descriptions could have been the script of Wooden Crosses.

“You got into the mood that nothing could lighten, not even the sound of the splashing feet of the man coming towards you to relieve you.  Dawn lit exhausted, clay-smeared figures who, pale and chattering, flung themselves down on the mouldy straw of their dripping dugouts.”

And the men in the movie, none of them professional actors, had all seen action, many in the very same trenches.

It will be hard for you to remember as you watch this that Bernard was in the famous generation of directors — Lang, Milestone, Vidor, Eisenstein– who made the transition from silent to talking movies.  You may wonder why his name isn’t among them as one of the greats, which Wooden Crosses certainly shows him to be.  He also directed the first screen rendition of Les Misérables , certainly worth queuing up at Netflix, where you can find Wooden Crosses, also.