I previously featured Abel Gance’s 1919 masterpiece J’Accuse in my DVD column, but was given the opportunity to really explore the film in a feature piece for Turner Classic Movies.
Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (1919), a politically and stylistically daring anti-war drama produced while the trench warfare of World War I was still grinding up soldiers on both sides of the battle, opens with the title spelled out by the bodies of soldiers striding into formation, like a marching band at a half-time show. Then they collapse, as if dead, to startling effect. Appropriating the cry leveled by Emile Zola during the Dreyfus affair, Gance levels his accusations at war itself.
Gance had served in World War I as cameraman and later worked in a gas plant, where he started to develop tuberculosis and was sent home by a generous officer. “He saved my life,” Gance confessed. J’Accuse may have been his way of thanking him. It was surely his way of honoring the soldiers and civilians who did not survive the war while trying to offer (in his own words) “proof of the horror and stupidity of war.” The epic drama is angry and tender and horrifying and touching, all of it conveyed by his powerful and delicate imagery and sophisticated techniques. As the villagers prance and cheer in the wake of the declaration of war, Gance offers his perspective on the human merriment by cutting to a scene of dancing skeletons: imagery of doom that eludes a citizenry caught up in their fantasy of glorious battle. As the reality sets in, Gance captures the tenderness of the men saying their goodbyes to wives and loved ones before heading to the front in a simple but evocative montage of hands tenderly reaching out to hands, putting out a candle and cleaning up after a last meal at home. So much sadness and fear is conveyed in the simple movements and the understated body language.
Read the complete review here.