Director: Abel Gance
Production: Charles Pathé (major investor); black and white, 35mm, silent; length: 1500 meters. Released 1919. Cost: about 456,000 francs.
Scenario (at least in part): Abel Gance; photography: L. H. Burel, Bujord, and Forster; editor: André Danis; assistant director: Blaise Cendrars.
Cast: Séberin Mars (François Lauron); Romuald Joubé (Jean Diaz); Maryse Dauvray (Edith); Desjardins; Blaise Cendrars.
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* * *
Abel Gance was one of the most innovative filmmakers of the silent era. Most famously, in his masterpiece Napoleon, he projected three images on screen at once in a process he called Polyvision. But this film is not Gance's only epic. Eight years before Napoleon, there was J'accuse.
While Napoleon celebrates the exploits of its title character, J'accuse is unabashedly anti-military. The setting is a small French town. A gentle poet, who opposes war and all hostility, loves the wife of a hunter. War is declared, and the husband goes off to fight; jealous of his rival, he dispatches his wife to the Ardennes. When she is captured by the Germans, the poet himself enlists. By the finale, the hunter has been killed in battle, the wife is raped, and the poet, driven mad by the destruction that has destroyed his life, drops dead. While he does not die in combat, his demise—and the tainting of his spirit, his zest for life, his inner peace and love of beauty—becomes the symbol of the pointlessness of war.
J'accuse is one of the earliest cinematic indictments of war. This fact alone earns the film its status in film history. But, additionally, it is one of the first French films to use montage and superimposed shots. In a stunning series of images, closeups of hands grasp each other, pray and raise glasses of wine as soldiers leave to fight. Gance communicates with his audience with visual metaphors: at the film's outset, the head of a dog is placed over the head of the hunter and, at the declaration of war, the Grim Reaper is placed over the poet's work; the filmmaker's rapid montage cutting highlights the horror of the battle sequences, shot by Gance after joining a French army unit. (He perfected this last technique in La Roue, a melodrama released in 1923, and in Napoleon.) The most famous sequence in J'accuse occurs near the finale, when the crazed poet imagines the ghosts of his dead comrades returning from the battlefield and through the countryside to observe the results of their sacrifices. Tragically, many of the real soldiers Gance utilized as extras did not themselves survive the war. (The film was shot during the final stages of the conflict. They were hired while on leave, just prior to their slaughter at Verdun.)
J'accuse was, upon its release, condemned for its anti-war sentiment by those basking in the German defeat. Gance wanted to make two sequels, to be called The Scars (Les cicatrices) and The League of Nations (La Société des Nations). Although these films were never completed, he did revise J'accuse four years after its release, most notably comparing the return of the dead soldiers sequence with a victory celebration.
Gance remade J'accuse with sound in 1937. He wrote that this new version was "intended as a challenge to the countries of Europe for permitting the gradual development of a situation that made war inevitable. Before the present menace became a reality, I wrote an introduction to the film which expresses the prophetic message it conveys from the screen: 'This film is dedicated to those who will die in the new war of tomorrow, although I am sure that they will view it skeptically and will fail to recognize themselves in it. . . ."'
Unfortunately, like Renoir's Grande illusion, J'accuse had no effect on altering the events which resulted in the next Great War.
"J'Accuse." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/jaccuse
"J'Accuse." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/jaccuse
"J'accuse." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/jaccuse
"J'accuse." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/jaccuse