Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

France's Lesser-Known But Truly Great Anti-War Film: Les Croix de Bois


Burial Detail

Wooden Crosses, or Les Croix de Bois (1932) in the original French, is considered by some critics to be the best of any nation's anti-war films, such as The Big Parade or All Quiet on the Western Front, produced in the interwar period. Maybe its toughest competition for this superlative comes from two better-known French anti-war films, Abel Gance's J'Accuse and Jean Renoirs Grand Illusion.  

Its general plot is a Gallic version of All Quiet: a young idealistic French volunteer-substitute  Gilbert Demachy (played by Pierre Blanchar) for Germany's Paul Bäumer joins a veteran unit, bonds with his mates, fights in many actions that gradually kill off most of his friends in the company, and, in the last scene of the movie, dies.

There are, however, many touches to Wooden Crosses that set it apart from similar war films. Gilbert's unit, the 39th Regiment of Infantry, is deployed to the Champagne, and all its combat sequences were filmed on location, in still existing wartime trenches that are recognizable because of the distinctive chalky-white soil of the region.  


French Graves in Champagne


There are multiple intense dramatic set-ups throughout the movie. In one, the troops are asleep in a dugout when they hear digging underneath—the Germans are tunneling a mine to lay explosives directly below their position! Their superiors, however, order them to hold the position, and some of the men are driven mad as the mine's detonation becomes more and more likely. Finally, Wooden Crosses features some of the most explicit and effective uses of symbolism to reinforce its message I've ever seen. The cross as an icon of death appears in countless ways: burial parties carrying crosses pass nearby, some of the men attend mass in a nearby village, and countless cemeteries are worked in the action, including the most intense battle sequence of the movie. 

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