A World War, a solemn vow, and a promise betrayed lead to a ‘night of the living war dead’ — all cooked up by the director of Napoleon, Abel Gance. The early, famed pacifist fantasy is back in near-perfect condition and restored to its full length (for one version, anyway). It’s a reworking, not a remake, of Gance’s own 1919 silent classic.
1938 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 120 min. / That They May Live; J’accuse: Fresque tragique des temps modernes vue et Réalisée par Abel Gance / Street Date November 15, 2016 / available through the Olive Films website / 29.98
Starring Victor Francen, Line Noro, Marie Lou, Jean-Max, Paul Amiot, Jean-Louis Barrault, Marcel Delaitre, Renée Devillers, Romuald Joubé, André Nox, Georges Rollin, Georges Saillard.
Cinematography Roger Hubert
Film Editor Madeleine Crétoile
Original Music Henri Verdun
Written by Abel Gance, Steve Passeur
Produced & Directed by Abel Gance
Around 1973 UCLA film school professor Bob Epstein was on a kick of proving to us young students that everything we thought our generation had invented — sex, drugs & anti-war activism — had been around for ages. The naughty pre-Code musical International House took care of the first two categories, and for the third Epstein had to dig deep. He showed us a battered print of a 1938 French film called J’accuse. The big surprise: not only was the movie pacifist (make that deliriously pacifist), its conclusion resembled another movie we had thought was wholly original: Night of the Living Dead. Even in its fragmented state, the spooky J’accuse took our heads off. Forty years of faulty memory has exaggerated the experience.
Now Olive Films, through Gaumont, gives us a quality restoration of J’accuse. It’s a full-length original French version, too. It’s not a world classic, but it is as weird as a high-minded movie about grand principles can get. That it resembles a horror film is what makes it unique: the horrors of war return as ghosts.
The grand filmmaker is Abel Gance, who in the sound era was a filmic genius first and a good filmmaker second. Led by the unassailable Kevin Brownlow, art-fixated cinema adepts rhapsodize over Gance’s silent La roue, and everybody agrees that Gance’s Napoleon is a screen masterwork. But Gance’s star of genius leveled off in the sound era as he clung to his once-revolutionary silent techniques. J’accuse ’38 is actually a reworking of Gance’s own J’accuse from 1919. The pictures are more similar than they are different, yet most opinions say that the silent version is better.
There’s so much to say that I’ll go lean on the synopsis. The movie opens near the end of the WW1 trench campaign, in Verdun. The command rounds up its daily suicide patrol, and a dozen men must crawl out into no man’s land. The young men tremble at having to sacrifice their lives. The older Jean Diaz (Victor Francen) is the only man known to have gone out on this patrol and come back alive. But he volunteers to go out again. Why? As Jean loves the wife of another man in the patrol, the only way he can prove his sincerity is to go with him. The other man is carried out alive but isn’t expected to live. Jean Diaz is among the corpses ready for burial when he suddenly shows signs of life. The two hold hands in the field hospital, briefly. The war ends that day; Jean swears that he will live for the men that fell in the trenches, and be their voice. He swears that he will prevent war from ever happening again.
Years later Jean is back at his job as a scientist in a glass factory, where he’s perfecting an invention that he hopes will end war. He never married the woman under contention, Edith (Line Noro), to keep true to his promise to her husband. But Edith is confused — he never explained this choice to her. Seventeen years later he says he’s fallen in love with Edith’s daughter, Helene (Renée Devillers). As Jean is universally respected as a spiritually elevated sage, Helene loves him too. But a fourth leg on the romantic triangle appears in the form of the new boss of the glass factory, Henry Chimay (Jean-Max). Jean Diaz eventually retires and is disgusted that his invention, an impermeable unbreakable glass, will be used to create body armor. Chimay and the other industrialists are looking forward to the war, and the profits it will bring. With the two women still fawning over him Jean Diaz goes nuts, talking in riddles about his pact with the dead of the previous conflict. He believes he has a supernatural power to prevent the war from coming again. When the call for mobilization goes out, he’s keen to prove it.
The film’s powerful opening episode is very much like the killing-field WW1 epics All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory. The excellent cutting of newsreel and older war footage creates the feeling of a brutal, constant bombardment. A startling effect uses dummies to convincingly show two soldiers being blown to bits. Back in the war, Gance reportedly filmed part of one silent fiction feature in a live combat zone; I’m not sure if any of that footage is used here. Gance skips most of his most radical filmic inventions, like the flutter-cutting of his silent movies. But he sticks with an overall style little changed from his silent days. J’accuse is from 1938 but much of it looks static and proscenium-bound, like films by Charles Chaplin.
Gance’s storytelling still amounts to many one-shot scenes and an equal number of scenes where secondary characters tell us what’s going on and what the main characters are feeling. When the Victory arrives, Jean Diaz first becomes attached to the physical graveyard where his comrades have been lain to rest. This obsession then becomes a fury to make sure that WW1 will truly be the War to End All Wars.
The middle section is something of a disappointment. The love triangle is hopelessly stilted; Gance’s idealized hero and his women exist on a lofty plane. To give just one example, Jean Diaz never tells Edith why he can’t marry her, so she keeps hoping that he’ll change his mind, wasting her life. It’s absurd that Jean comes to her later with the idea of perhaps marrying her daughter, and expects Edith to understand. The actresses playing Edith and Helene are given so little attention, their characters barely make sense — unless we conclude that Gance believes that all women should be attracted to elder ‘great men’ like himself.
The show is Victor Francen’s all the way. He’s remarkable. Gance gives Francen at least four over-the-top pacifist speeches to perform in close-up, each more fiery and impassioned than the last. By the final one we think Francen is going to have a heart attack. As an isolated, anguished ‘conscience of the world’ Francen is just what the doctor ordered — it’s the only way to play this character.
The big shockeroo arrives at the finale, when Jean Diaz’ spiritual link activates the dead in the graveyard outside his glass lab. [ crazy supernatural things going on atop a WW1 graveyard? Shades of Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat. ] A storm rises on the night of mobilization. Jean Diaz goes mad, stares at the graves and creepy monuments — and the whole place comes alive. As the skies rush over the cemetery monuments the dead rise from their graves, with the aid of special effects that range from crude superimpositions to more accomplished optical composites. Even the stone statues come to life, with some nicely macabre effects. As the veteran dead march, their progress is intercut with scenes of panic among the local populace, the army, and politicians. It all culminates in a horror sequence using ‘Les Gueules Cassées’, which I think means ‘broken mouths’ or ‘broken mugs.’ Marching into close-up are ten or so actual disfigured veterans, with their faces crudely patched together, missing eyes, with replacement noses and shattered mouths.
The horror gimmick seeks to confront the viewer with the awfulness of war. Depending on one’s attitude, the spectacle comes off as daring confrontational art, or an exercise in bad taste. But it’s true — while we worship the sentiments of honor and heroism, war’s lasting consequences are always hidden away. Writer David J. Skal based an entire book on the theory that the horror film renaissance of the 1930s sprang from the need to deal with the physical damage done by WW1. Medicine could now save the lives of soldiers with faces blown apart. The basic ’30s movie monster is a bogeyman with disturbing facial makeup.
The beginning of the graveyard sequence is the best part, as Gance’s images of the rising storm play well off of Victor Francen’s crazed face, backed by the terrific creepy music of Henri Verdun. The marching dead aren’t always superimposed well, but they’re effective enough. A direct descendant of this show, motivated by the same feeling of political outrage, is Joe Dante’s 2006 cable TV film Homecoming. Soldiers killed in Iraq return as zombies, outraged that the war ever happened in the first place. The film was a direct reaction to the Bush administration’s attempt to suppress images of flag-draped coffins returning on transport planes.
Seen now, one more image seems prescient: when becoming obsessed, Jean Diaz stares at a framed map of battlefields that hangs on the wall. The little flags in it seem to drive him nuts. The visual match isn’t strong, yet the situation reminds us of Richard Boone’s fixation on a graveyard map in the impressive horror picture I Bury the Living (1958).
On one level J’accuse must be regarded as a flimsy poetic gesture that went unheeded as war fever cranked up in mid-’30s Europe. It of course had no effect in the real world, except perhaps to cue other well meaning pacifists to evoke the betrayal of the war dead barely twenty years in their graves. Germany banned the film, of course. It opened in Paris in January ’38, which means it was around over a year and a half before the Germans invaded. It didn’t reach the U.S. until weeks after general war broke out, in November of 1939. It was cut by twenty minutes, re-titled That They May Live and released in New York. The topical subject won it plenty of newspaper coverage. I know it also had a booking in Los Angeles, at the Vogue Theater on Hollywood Blvd.
American critics gave Gance’s film serious consideration. Some were aware that it had been cut, and used that to excuse its narrative awkwardness. But almost all criticized the film’s sentimental basis. Instead of offering any useful food for thought, Gance’s picture becomes a grim “I Told You So” fantasy. Almost every critic picked up on a major flaw, that Jean Diaz’s invention of bulletproof armor would do nothing to prevent war, quite the opposite. The New York Times recognized that it was a sequel, or reworking, of the 1919 movie that it considered superior. The communist paper Daily Worker rejected its ideas about European politics. Without explanation, that paper preferred Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise, a film that takes place during the French Revolution.
America likely had little use for a bizarre French movie with a pacifist message. Early in 1940, New York art theaters screened Hugo Haas’ anti-Nazi allegory Skeleton on Horseback with a print smuggled out of Czechoslovakia. Its author, playwright Karel Kapek, died of pneumonia in Prague before the Nazis could arrest him.
Today J’accuse also seems to be a reworking of Abel Gance’s apocalyptic science fiction movie La fin du monde (1930), about a comet colliding with the Earth. Each film stars Victor Francen as a bigger-than-life scientist determined to harness some kind of spiritual power to save the world. In La fin du monde the spiritual part of the equation is the hero’s brother, a Christ figure who predicts that some giant ‘heart of mankind’ will intervene to save everyone. Both movies begin with Christ imagery, with doves used as clunky symbols of peace betrayed. Both films work up to an apocalyptic climax. Gance repurposes a scene from La fin of a huge meeting of diplomats, threatened by an approaching comet, declaring the end of nations and a unified Earth. In J’accuse, the same gathering of diplomats, faced by hordes of living dead soldiers come back from the wars of history, unanimously vote to ban war forever. Both films try to inspire a giddy delirium, expecting the viewer to succumb to the brilliance of the genius director. J’accuse did far better than the flop La fin du monde, but it didn’t transform the consciousness of the world. Poetic cries for peace never fare well in times of war.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Abel Gance let his emotions run away with him. It’s as if he thought, ‘I’m an impassioned genius and I feel this deeply, therefore my movie will spread this passion like wildfire.’ J’accuse impresses mostly as a giddy, despairing scream of outrage. Considering WW1’s destruction of an entire generation that seems wholly justified, even if a new war was right on the horizon.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray of J’accuse lists a running time of 120 minutes, and only some of that can be additional restoration titles. Gance was big on possessory credits. His name writes out in longhand at the beginning and at the end. As with La fin du monde the full title is longer, an extended possessory credit: J’accuse: Fresque tragique des temps modernes vue et réalisée par Abel Gance A cheap translation of that is, “I Accuse: Tragic fresco of modern time visualized and directed by Abel Gance.”
I never thought I’d see this film in such good shape. Gaumont’s restored encoding is crystal clear and has excellent sound. The original sound recording and mix seem fairly crude, though, and a transition or two where the music just disappears across a cut may be evidence of pre-release cutting. Again this disc is longer than the listed running time for the film, so I doubt anything is missing. The end credits are a little puzzling, as the text seems to indicate that this version was prepared later, perhaps after the war — a reference to the film’s impact is written in the past tense.
The quality is good enough to make it easy to tell when stock footage is cut in. The WW1 vintage footage is in basically great shape, and only gives itself away in that much of it is under-cranked. Besides the borrowed scenes from the giant political rally, exteriors of mobs of people going crazy on the streets also appear to be sourced from La fin du monde. The visual we remember most is of course the ‘Gueules Cassées’, who appear out of flashes of lightning, peeking through superimposed smoke and clouds. Next up is a giant statue that comes to life, a sort of granite Angel of Death. Cinematographer Roger Hubert’s work is certainly fine; he later filmed the opulent Children of Paradise under dire circumstances in the middle of the occupation. That film’s Jean-Louis Barrault has a small role in this picture.
And then there are the many close-ups of the star Victor Francen, that breathe life into the picture. Francen started acting in 1921. His best movie may be Julien Duvivier’s splendid La fin du jour (thank you David Cairns). Gance’s go-to actor fled France for Hollywood at the war’s start, and after appearing as a worthy emigré in Mitchell Leisen’s Hold Back the Dawn, became a fixture in wartime pictures as a kindly professor or an evil spy: Passage to Marseille, The Mask of Dimitrios, The Conspirators, Confidential Agent, The Beast with Five Fingers, The Beginning of the End. One of his later pictures saw him once again back in a strange political fantasy, as a pacifist atom scientist on an arctic sabotage mission in Samuel Fuller’s comic-book jaw-dropper Hell and High Water. Nowhere is he as powerful as in J’accuse.
Abel Gance was well on his way to obscurity when Kevin Brownlow revived his reputation back in the late 1960s. The death blow had already been dealt by Jean-Luc Godard, who when slamming the Old Guard of French filmmaking, held up Gance as the most flagrant offender deserving to be swept away by the New Wave. That’s revolution for you.
An important update, November 21, 2016:
A note from Stefan Andersson answers some questions and raises others about J’accuse. It looks as if I in no way had a handle on the whole story. In my review I stated that the finish seemed to be a revision, as if Monsieur Gance had prepared a changed version for release after the war. That’s an understatement.
Andersson points me (us) to three fascinating and educational online resources. First is a scholarly article comparing the two versions of J’accuse, adding in comments about a Bertrand Tavernier film with a related theme, Le vie et rien d’autre (Life and Nothing But), from 1989. It’s long and convoluted; Stefan points us to footnote #35, which talks about a re-cut of J’accuse ’38:
Next up is a new note on the Home Theater Forum from expert Robert Harris, who reportedly did restoration work on the title in the late 1980s. Harris likes the new disc but is disappointed that the version accessed by Olive and Gaumont is a revision done by Gance himself; the filmmaker dropped a final scene in which Jean Diaz joins the marching undead and returns with them to the massive Verdun cemetery:
Finally, Stefan Andersson slips us a link to a rough ‘n’ ragged DailyMotion copy of J’accuse, which includes what Harris and Kelly call the original cut:
I looked at the finish, and the difference is amazing. Abel Gance once again overcooks the stew and goes all ‘Christian Symbolism’ with his story. Terrified of the marching dead, the angry mob blames Jean Diaz. They seize him, lash him to a stone (cross?) and burn him, as if he were the False Maria from Metropolis. The exaggerated delirium is almost amusing — Gance’s righteous poetic rhapsodizing overloads the film, as if he really expected viewers to stagger from the theater with their souls completely changed. At least it’s not as bad as Gance’s La fin du monde, where he narcissistically casts himself as a saint-like prophet and savior of the world, who even takes the role of Christ in a passion play.
You heard it last at DVD Savant. It’s a lot to absorb. A century from now some dusty film-ologist will be trying to explain to people that George Lucas’s Star Wars movies were constantly being revised, while 22nd-century schoolkids pretend to be interested.
Thank you Stefan.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 15, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson