BLU-RAY REVIEW: WOODEN CROSSES /CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: RAYMOND BERNARD / SCREENPLAY: RAYMOND BERNARD, ANDRÉ LANG / STARRING: PIERRE BLANCHAR, GABRIEL GABRIO, CHARLES VANEL, RAYMOND AIMOS / RELEASE DATE: MARCH 30TH
If ever a film met the requirements for Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema series, it’s Raymond Bernard’s seminal World War One drama Wooden Crosses (Les crox de bios). To coincide with the hundred year anniversary of the start of the ‘Great War’, Pathé carefully restored the film last year, and now it’s released bundled up with insightful extras.
Adapted from the novel by Roland Dorgelés, a former corporal of the 39th, Wooden Crosses sees the young and spirited student Gilbert Demachy (Pierre Blanchar) joining the French army in 1914 and a cast made entirely of war veterans. The film starts by showing the soldier’s cheer and optimism; their drinking, dancing and singing punctured by the death of a comrade, carried solemnly through their proceedings. Even as they hunker down in the trenches, there’s still comradery and cheer evoking Jessie Pope’s blinked propaganda poem Who’s For the Game. But quickly the cheer and high spirits fade, and the nightmarish reality of their situation takes over.
The cinematography is sublime, with transitions that bleed and blend into one another, draping the film in a prolonged sense of time. Even with the ugliness of war it captures, there’s also moments of beauty and introspection, particularly the magnificent shot of the sun rise over no man’s land. Along with the stunning set design, Wooden Crosses remains utterly convincing, led by the powerful score, snaking its sounds with the darkening lives of the soldiers.
The conflict scenes still pack a surprising punch, depicting all the unflinching cruelty of warfare, and the wounded soldiers desperate for life is still deeply upsetting. The ending proves particularly poignant with Demachy weakly singing a song, a call back to the optimism of the soldiers at the beginning, and how it’s perverted over the course of the narrative.
Since its release in 1932, time has done little to dull the visceral impact of Wooden Crosses, which proves every bit as profound, touching and frightening as any contemporary offerings.
Extras: Video interview with historian Marc Ferro and film historian Laurent Veray; documentary on film restoration; Documentary - Wooden Crosses: A Sonic Adventure; archival interview with director Raymond Bernard; archival interview with Rolan Dorgelés; vintage 1914 newsreels; documentary piece on early 20th century poster artist Andrien Barrére; Documentary - The Absent Battle, The Omnipresent War; 36 page booklet.