sat 25/11/2017

DVD/Blu-ray: J'Accuse | reviews, news & interviews

DVD/Blu-ray: J'Accuse

DVD/Blu-ray: J'Accuse

Though marred by technical limitations, Abel Gance’s anti-war film was still a titanic achievement

'J'Accuse' (1938): dedicated to 'the Dead of tomorrow's war'

Abel Gance’s remake of his 1919 classic was a worthy but overwrought attempt to avert World War II, which by 1938 was already a fait accompli. In their comparative sombreness, King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925) and Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) are greater anti-war films, but then Vidor and Milestone couldn’t possibly have feared, as did Gance, the coming conflagration.

Gance’s sardonic dedication to those viewers who would become “the Dead of tomorrow’s war” sets the tone of the second J’Accuse as an awful mirror of death. Transactions between the living and the dead are the fabric of the film, which begins conventionally, as a melodrama about two Great War poilus wrangling over the same woman.

The poet Jean Diaz (Victor Francen) has had an affair with Édith (Line Noro), the wife of his best friend François Laurin (Marcel Delaître), and he has continued to write to her. The two men’s bond as comrades-in-arms enables them to overcome their rancour. On the eve of the Armistice, Diaz volunteers to take the place of a family man in a doomed patrol. Diaz comes through the mission with shrapnel in his head and survivor guilt after Laurin and the other platoon members are killed.

J'AccuseBack home, Diaz resumes his friendship with Édith but refrains from resuming their affair out of respect for Laurin. Pledging to end all future wars, he invents glass armour that renders bullets ineffective, but the idea is stolen by his business partner, the fascist industrialist Henri Chimay (Jean Max), who marries Edith’s daughter, despite her loving Diaz, as her mother still does.

Realising his armour will be used as a weapon during the next war, Diaz goes insane and – with Karloffian fervour – raises the Verdun dead from the Douaumont Ossuary. Like a plague of wrathful zombies, they swarm toward the citizens who have been so cavalier about starting another conflict. Among the extras who played the walking dead were “Gueules Cassées” – facially disfigured Great War veterans – whose inclusion earned Gance accusations of tastelessness and exploitation.

The BFI’s dual-fomat J’Accuse release contains an essay and audio commentary by Paul Cuff and contemporaneous reviews that offer a dialectical approach to the film's original reception. Since Gance was believed to be Jewish, anti-Semitic French critics like the loathsome Lucien Rebatet, writing as François Vinneuil in the fascist L’Action française, vilified the film, though the review by Louis Cheronnet in the Communist L’humanité was also damning. 

The fact remains that J’Accuse is a noble but flawed polemic. Gance unnecessarily uses too many oblique camera angles when rendering the dread of the people learning of the resurrections. His over-reliance on dissolves and primitive effects when depicting the advance of the dead draws too much attention to the cinematic apparatus. What may have seemed alarming for many viewers in 1938 now seems artificial.

The spectral host summoned by Aragorn in the Paths of the Dead in The Lord of the Rings would have originated with JRR Tolkien's memories of the Somme, as did the ghostly submerged warriors in “The Passage of the Marshes” chapter. One assumes Tolkien knew of J’Accuse and that Peter Jackson saw it before filming 2003’s The Return of the King. That there's an intertextual relationship between Gance's Dead and Jackson's vision of Tolkien’s decimated generation is certain.

Gance unnecessarily uses too many oblique camera angles when rendering the dread of the people learning of the resurrections

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters