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4.0 out of 5 stars Les Croix de Bois/Wooden Crosses and Les Miserables (1934), 6 Nov 2007
This review is from: Criterion Collection: Raymond Bernard Set [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] (DVD)
A huge hit in its native France in 1932, Raymond Bernard's film of Roland Dorgelese's autobiographical novel Les Croix de Bois aka Wooden Crosses hasn't dated as well as some of its contemporaries like All Quiet On the Western Front, The Big Parade or Wings, although there's still much in this tale of the gradual decimation of a group of French soldiers in the First World War that works extremely well. It benefits from being made within living memory of the events and by people who were actually there (the entire cast, including Charles Vanel, Antonin Artaud and Raymond Cordy, served in the War), and there's often a feeling of stark veracity to some of the imagery, such as an ignored soldier crawling on his back through No Man's Land after an attack. There's also a determination to at least to try to avoid some of the clichés already inherent in the war movie thanks to several years of propaganda films - one soldier dies cursing his unfaithful wife, another tries desperately to stay awake as he waits for the medics to find him among the dozens of wounded, while in the film's most moving scene a mass gives way to the moans of the wounded in the makeshift chapel hospital while one soldier offers a cynical but heartfelt prayer for life or at least hope from the sidelines. Throughout, hope, pity and salvation remain denied as the war goes on and on.

Bernard's direction is years ahead of his time, the very camera going mad in one huge battle scene where the men are killed defending a cemetery, the handheld camera at times even having to dive for cover and seek shelter from the all-consuming chaos. Yet as a feature it's not entirely effective because few of the figures these events happen to are particularly vividly characterized or portrayed: many of them blur into each other leaving too few characters to care about. It's a fine film and a genuinely noble one that didn't deserve the fate that overtook it - rather than getting a US release it was instead used for stock footage for films like Cavalcade and the remake of Seventh Heaven while in Europe post-WW2 it became increasingly obscure as new horrors robbed it of some of its relevance - and one that's certainly worth a look in Eclipse's nicely restored DVD.

Nearly seven decades before Peter Jackson got New Line to make three Lord of the Rings films back-to-back, the success of Les Croix de Bois enabled Raymond Bernard to persuade Pathe to back an epic three-part version of Les Miserables in 1934, each part released in remarkably quick succession (quite literally a week apart in France). No expense was spared - Arthur Honegger was hired to score the film and the cinematographer of Abel Gance's Napoleon, Jules Kruger, to photograph it on lavishly realised sets filled at times with thousands of extras. Running more than five hours in its original version (and not far off it in its restored version on DVD from Eclipse), it has much more room to breathe than any of the Hollywood versions, and as a result, rather than concentrating on pitiless policeman Javert's relentless pursuit of the reformed convict Jean Valjean, comes closer than any other version to capturing the sprawling narrative and the well-realized supporting characters in Victor Hugo's panoramic novel of rehabilitation and redemption in a cruel world.

In the imposing figure of Harry-Baur (himself tortured and murdered by the Nazis nine years later) it has a Valjean you can believe has spent most of his life in prison while in Charles Vanel's relentless Javert a man as rigid and unimaginative as his greatcoat, while Bernard frequently offers literally askew visuals of a world off-balance that sometimes make The Ipcress File look defiantly horizontal as well as the odd moment of handheld fury to compare to the best scenes in Croix. Yet still the first film, Une Tempête Sous un Crâne/Tempest in a Skull, never quite succeeds in grabbing the heart as well as it does in telling the story. Things pick in the second part, Les Thénardier as the loathsome low-lives assume a more prominent role, with the film offering a particularly chilling ending as Valjean is faced with both a reminder of his past and a possible warning of his future, only for the characters to occasionally get lost in the spectacular events of the 1832 Students' Revolt that dominates the third part, Liberté, Liberté Chérie. Throughout it's constantly engrossing, but while it's a good yarn, it doesn't quite move as you think it could, more a solid literary adaptation rather than a moving emotional experience, though it's not for want of trying and it's certainly worth seeing.

Again the film was ill-served by time, much re-edited (initially as a single film) and only restored to something like its original length in 1977 shortly before Bernard's death. Amazingly this three-part version on the same DVD as Les Croix de Bois is so beautifully restored aside from a few scenes that you'd have a hard time believing it was ever lost. And keep an eye out for one scene of outrageous overacting in Part Two from Jean Servais listening to the Thénardiers plotting through the wall: you can actually hear Bernard directing him off-camera ("Vite")!
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Trevor Willsmer
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Location: London, England

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