J’accuse (1919) Director: Abel Gance
Like other films in Abel Gance’s incredible silent film repertoire, J’accuse is a grandiose achievement. The contemporary edited-down version lasts nearly three hours, but the original was 14 reels long and Gance shot much of the harrowing footage on location in World War I trenches (the film features real WWI soldiers in the final cut). Why is it titled J’accuse? Gance claims he intended to accuse everyone, to place everyone on trial with this film: he points the finger at ignorant citizens, greedy politicians, war-hungry businessmen, and so on. Allusions to Emile Zola abound.
The technical quality of J’accuse is extraordinary and the story unfolds in a compelling manner. It is surely one of the great early anti-war films. D.W. Griffith often receives all the credit for being the master of early silent epics, but Abel Gance is indeed a more worthy genius. His poetry is cleverly told across the silent screen replete with images of scenic beauty.
The film begins in an idyllic, small-town in Provence, France. When World War I begins the citizenry, bands of 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 in a secret romance with a poet, Jean Diaz. Angry, Francois sends his wife away to stay with his mother, but she is captured by German soldiers and promptly raped. Jean does not enlist (he is a pacifist) but eventually he is forced to enlist when his hometown is captured and occupied by the Germans.
Meanwhile on the frontlines Jean and Francois find themselves serving together in the same battalion, skeptical of one another. 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 ultimately 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 walking 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 a destroyed wasteland on the frontline. He blames the sun for the crimes of the war, and then he collapses in death on the ground, and the film concludes.
Abel Gance had been denied service in the French army due to ill heath during WWI (he had contracted tuberculosis), and this discharge ultimately saved his life and served as the true inspiration for the film. The scene at the end of the film showcasing Jean’s dark vision actually featured over 2,000 French soldiers in the south of France who appear to rise from the ground and return home. These extras had come straight from the front and had to return only a few days later, many of them would never again grace their homes but their legacy lives on in this impressive silent film. It is a ghostly reminder of all that was lost. J’accuse was a financial success upon its release in France, and Abel Gance went on to make a celebrated remake of the film in 1937.