J’accuse (1919) Director: Abel Gance
J’accuse is the great tragic war film by the French master director of epic silent film, Abel Gance. Like his other silent films, J’accuse is a lengthy but worthy 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 WWI soldiers. 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 technical quality of the film is remarkable and the story is told brilliantly. It is surely one of the great early war films, an amazing anti-war film. D.W. Griffith often gets all the credit for being the master of the early silent epic, but Abel Gance is indeed a genius. His poetry is cleverly told in a silent film replete with images of scenic beauty.
The film begins in idyllic, small-town Provence, France. When war is declared (WWI) 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 caught up 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 raped. Jean does not enlist, as a pacifist, but eventually is forced to enlist when his hometown 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 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 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 this is what saved his life. This was the true inspiration for the film. The scene at the end of the film showcasing Jean’s vision featured 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. Abel Gance went on to make a celebrated remake of the film in 1937.