J’accuse (1919) Director: Abel Gance
J’accuse is the first great war epic film by the master director of epic silent film. Like his other silent films, J’accuse is a long film. In the modern edited down version, it lasts nearly three hours, but the original was 14 reels long and Gance shot much of the harrowing footage on location in the trenches with real soldiers of WWI. Why is it called J’accuse? Gance claims he is intending to put everyone on trial: he accuses the ignorant citizens, greedy politicians, war-hungry businessmen, and so on. Allusions to Emile Zola abound.
The film begins in idyllic, small-town Provence, France. When war is declared (WWI) the citizenry. Many young men flock to enlist in the army. Among them is Francois a large and aggressive man who is married to Edith, daughter of an elderly French veteran. However, he catches her caught up in a secret romance with a poet, Jean Diaz. His poetry is cleverly told in a silent film through images of scenic beauty. Angry, Francois sends his wife away to stay with his mother, but she is captured by German soldiers and raped. Jean does not enlist, as a pacifist, but he eventually does when his town is captured and occupied by the Germans.
Meanwhile on the frontlines Jean and Francois find themselves serving together in the same battalion, skeptical of each other. Jean eventually returns home due to poor health (trench fever) in the trenches, but he finds his mother on her deathbed and Edith returns with an infant German baby. They try to hide the baby from Francois when he returns home, but he quickly grows jealous and violent, remembering their earlier affair. The two men fight until the truth is revealed and they look to exact vengeance on the Germans back on the front. In the final battle, Francois dies and Jean suffers from extreme shell-shock. He has a notable vision of dead soldiers arising from the battlefield and walk back to their homeland. He returns to his mother’s home and he angrily tears up a book of his poems. He stops on his “Ode to the Sun” and shouts out at the sun as the land deteriorates into the destroyed wasteland of the frontline. He blames the sun for the crimes of the war, and then he collapses in death on the ground, thus concluding the film.
Apparently Abel Gance was discharged from the French army due to ill heath during WWI, and for this he owed his life and inspired the film. The scene at the end of the film showcasing Jean’s vision was shot with over 2,000 French soldiers in the south of France as they rise from the ground and return home. They had come straight from the front and had to return only days later. The film was a financial success in France. Gance went on to make a celebrated remake of the film in 1937.
The technical quality of the film is remarkable and the story is told brilliantly. It is surely one of the great war films, or perhaps anti-war films. D.W. Griffith often gets all the credit for being the master of the silent epic, but Abel Gance is indeed a genius. His films are powerfully made, some of the best of the silent era.