I am currently preparing for my annual tournament which this year will determine the best WWI combat movie. It is surprisingly hard to find sixteen movies that fit my criteria. I solicited suggestions and one of the suggestions was this movie. I was not familiar with it before it was suggested, but I’m glad it appeared on my radar. It just goes to show that no matter how many war movies you watch and no matter how much you read up on the genre, you still can be surprised by obscure gems. “Wooden Crosses” is a French film that was originally entitled “Les Croix des Bois”. It is based on a novel by Roland Dorgeles. He was a veteran of the war. The director was Raymond Bernard. The movie is set in the Champagne sector midway through the war on the Western Front.
The movie opens with the image of soldiers fading into crosses. Theme established. This will not be a feel-good movie. A new recruit named Gilbert (Pierre Blanchar) arrives at a bivouac. This will be a small unit movie. The cast of characters is introduced and briefly identified. They are typically heterogeneous. The fat, jolly cook who never bathes, the dandy, the serious grandpa, the crafty singer, the meany, the gentleman, the moron, the loudmouth, etc. It’s like a frat house and he’s a pledge. In fact, there is a lot of singing and dancing in the film. These guys are making the best of the war, at first. I wonder if all these guys will be around for the end credits. What do you think?
It turns out that the film is basically a buddy film featuring the relationship between Gilbert and the loudmouth Sulphart (Gabriel Gabrio). This dynamic reminded me of Paul and Kat in “All Quiet…” Sulphart is the seasoned veteran who takes Gilbert under his wing. Only Gilbert does not need much schooling. He is mature and fits in immediately. When the first man dies, it’s Gilbert who brings a letter he wrote to the gravesite. The movie avoids the usual clichés of the subgenre of “who will survive?” The deaths will be unpredictable.
The plot facilitates the winnowing of the unit. Over several months, the men are tested by the war. Their enthusiasm wanes as they live through the monotony as well as the gut-wrenching combat. The monotony includes the lice hunts and dugout discussions. The soldier banter is not labored or faux. These quieter moments are pauses between the very noisier scenes of bombardment and combat. Several of the scenes are memorable. At one point the group is in a dugout and they detect Germans tunneling under them to mine the position. The movie intercuts with the Germans doing their work. There is an extended section that depicts an attack across no man’s land to capture a village. The movie concludes with another battle scene because some of the main characters are still alive.
This is a remarkable movie. Bernard directed it with flair. He is a big fan of fades. The cinematography stands out. The night scenes are nicely lit with flares providing the eerie shadowing. There are great sound effects, but I find that most WWI movies do explosions well. The bombardments are so well done that when the first assault approaches, I found myself wondering how the Hell anyone could go out into that! The sets are fine with a realistic no man’s land. One flaw is the trenches are a bit too livable. I did not see a rat and it does not rain. There is not a lot of mud. The movie does not lay the futility of the war on thick. The soldiers have some cynicism, but they do not question the war. There is no hint of the mutiny that is coming in the French army. The movie also does not take many shots at command. Both of these omissions are a bit puzzling considering Gorgeles was a veteran. The only aspect that is clearly anti-war is the death total. Unfortunately, most of the unit are not fleshed out, other than Gilbert and Sulphart. It would take repeat viewing to figure out who is dying when. The only characters that are fully developed are the main two. Both of whom are engaging. Gilbert is steady and acts as the unit’s conscience. He is Paul Baumer from the start. Sulphart provides comic relief, but he is a good soldier and a great friend. I would hope to meet someone like him if I was sent to the front.
The outstanding thing about the film is the combat. It has both quantity and quality. I have seen enough WWI movies to assure you that they seldom have very much actual fighting. This movie manages to give good treatment to both the soldier life and the battles. The attack on the village features twelve minutes of continuous balls to the wall combat. The numerous deaths are random and not the usual cheesy overacting. At one point they are defending a cemetery (similar to a scene in “All Quiet…”) and Gilbert and Sulphart take refuge in a grave. Sulphart: “They’ll bury us alive to save time.” One of the unit gets one of the great death scenes in war movie history. His last request is for Sulphart to visit his cheating wife and spit in her face!
“Wooden Crosses” is a must see for war movie fans. It is one of the best films set in WWI. Don’t let the subtitles scare you away. It will probably make my 100 Best War Movies list.
GRADE = A