Blu-ray review: Wooden Crosses

Starring: Pierre Blanchar, Charles Vanel
Director: Raymond Bernard

wooden-crossesRaymond Bernard’s WWI movie saves its heavy artillery – literally – for its latter stages, with a set-piece assault on the pulverized remnants of a village that features some powerful imagery of bleached earth and half-buried, casually ignored bodies. More generally, though, its tone is one of quiet romantic pessimism as it follows the fate of a squadron through the slow attrition of the trenches.

For a film made back in 1932, Wooden Crosses in many ways has a strikingly modern sensibility. Its mood is anti-heroic, with an emphasis on the fear and misery of war and the randomness of death – a slaughter caused by friendly fire, someone getting shot by a sniper as he goes off to fill some canteens with water. Verité-style scenes capture the rough but kindly characters who make up the backbone of the squadron. But admirable though the film’s attempts to portray the humdrum realities of a soldier’s life are, it lacks that little bit of dramatic focus, and it’s not helped by some overly poetic flourishes on the director’s part. As a result, certain episodes – most notably, one where the squadron sit helplessly in their dugout, listening as the enemy dig a tunnel underneath them and plant a mine – which should be nail-bitingly tense, somehow fall short of the mark.

Nonetheless, this in an impressive, pioneering piece of work, with earthy performances from a cast of ex-soldiers, and striking open air cinematography which has the close, cross-hatched quality of an old daguerreotype. 7/10

Occasional flickering grain here or there, but on the whole the restoration from the original camera negative looks very handsome, with wet inky blacks during the numerous nocturnal scenes, and lots of close-grained detail in grimy costumes and backdrops. 8/10

Plenty to chew over here. A 32-min piece looking at the film and the novel by Roland Dorgeles on which it is based. A fascinating 24 min account of the restoration of the film, which has gone through various edits over the years. An extremely interesting 11-min piece on the technicalities of early sound recording and mixing. Short archive interviews with Bernard and Dorgeles, who was a family friend of the director. Plus two very enjoyable and nicely crafted pieces not directly related to the film, one on a WWI artist, another on a soldier who captured the conflict in photographs. 10/10


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