Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Les Croix de bois / Wooden Crosses

One of my first posts was on the proposed dramatisation of Maurice Genevoix's novel Ceux de 14, one of the great novels of the Great War. One of other famous novels of the war, Les croix de bois by Roland Dorgelès (1885-1973) has already been filmed, in 1932.

The book was an autobiographical novel. Dorgelès (real name Lecavalé - the English Wikipedia entry here is ludicrously short; the French one here is much fuller) served in the 74e and the 39e Infantry Regiments in the Argonne and in Artois in 1914-15. He transferred to Aviation, but never served with a front-line squadron, and there is no record of him in the files available online. In 1917 he began working for the satirical magazine Le Canard Enchainé and, with the novel written, rarely revisited his war in print.

He published Les croix de bois, based on his experiences, in 1919. It won the Prix Femina, and only just missed out on the Prix Goncourt. You can read the French edition here, or the 1921 US edition here. He later said he disdained writing a diary, and had burnt all his contemporary notes after having written the book. A story could not simply be created by using such material - only a proper narrator could convey experience. Be that as it may, it did not prevent the novel becoming exceptionally popular, almost as popular as Barbusse's Le Feu. But the ever-hard-to-please Jean Norton Cru thought Dorgelès, 'one of the writers who knew the least of combat and of soldiers' experiences. ... of all the war's writers, Dorgelès has done most to twist words, phrases and scenes for an effect that comes from the imagination of the writer rather than from what actually happened.' Not a fan then.


The plot is a simple one - new recruits join an existing squad of infantrymen (each man a different stereotypical French character), and have to endure various trials until they are accepted by the rest of their comrades. Meanwhile, callous officers squander the lives of their men, while wives and sweethearts left at home are unfaithful. When it came to turning the novel into a film, the director Raymond Bernard, in the words of contemporary critic François Vinneul, succeeded in producing a story that was neither warmongering nor pacifist, but was simply 'an expression of discipline freely consented to and never automatic, a struggle between irreverent individualism and the obscure feeling of the nobility of arms and the soil they are defending.' Other critics may choose to disagree (here for example) - Vinneul was, after all, writing in Action Française, the mouthpiece for a far-right party.

The whole film is on You Tube, admittedly with Portuguese subtitles, here. There are also several set pieces that can be watched on the same site if you don't want to sit through the whole thing. The mining scene here is an exercise in tension. The squad are in their dugout when they hear German tunnellers in the chalk below them. They know they are fine while they can still hear the digging. But then it stops.

The set-piece attack here is a ten-minute assault on the ears. The actors may die more decorously than they do in modern films, and of course there is a distinct absence of spurty blood, but as a sequence, with several long tracking shots, I think it's comparable with the landing scene of Saving Private Ryan. I wonder, incidentally, how accurately it represents an actual attack - men bunch up dangerously in a village street and generally eschew the use of cover, but perhaps they actually did this in action, as opposed to in training, if there was an emphasis of capturing ground quickly before the German counter-attack could commence.

In one of the last scenes (here), the squad's regiment has been relieved, but has to go straight to a parade in front of a general. Many are reluctant, until unit pride takes over and they participate. It reminds me of one of Frederic Manning's characters in The Middle Parts of Fortune, 'They can say what they like, but we're a bloody fine mob.' And so they are. This emotional scene even had film viewers in tears, apparently.

The film was so successful that Fox bought the rights to produce an English-language version. The script was to be written by William Faulkner, who contributed to six different scripts over four years, with each version moving further and further from the original (not the last time that Hollywood would destroy a foreign film with a lumpen adaption). The film was finally released in 1936 as The Road to Glory, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Warner Baxter, Frederic March and Lionel Barrymore. Barrymore's character, was not in the original nor was the love interest, a nurse (June Lang).

So, see the original if you can; see the remake if you must.

Pictures: Dorgeles in the trenches; a poster and still from Les croix de bois; publicity still and poster from The Road to Glory

Update 18 November 2014: a restored version of the French original has been released recently on DVD; it's not yet on amazon.co.uk, but it is on the French version. The cover is below

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