The book, Les croix de bois, appeared in 1919, immediately after the war, written by Roland Dorgelès, a volunteer, although reformed twice for health reasons. The film, adapted from the book, was released in 1932: shot on the battlefields of Champagne with the support of the French Army and with actors – Pierre Blanchar (Gilbert Demachy), Charles Vanel (Corporal Breval), Aimos (Fouillard) , Jean Galland (Captain Cruchet) – and extras who participated in the war.
In the book, Roland Dorgelès retraces the life at the front of a group of soldiers that has just joined a young engaged law student who fits despite the differences in education, class, fortune … The experience of those men who endure an implacable war, on which they can not do anything, to which they must adapt, makes it a book against war, not for philosophical, political or other reasons, but by the mere description of the life of the soldiers.
The strength of Les Croix is the story of daily life at the front. A closed world, to which no one can escape, without any link with the outside world, apart from food and babilles (letters), good or bad, irregular, apart from the incomprehensible decisions of the strategists, German or French, who are known only by their consequences: a patrol to be made, an attack to take back a village in ruins, in a mad race against machine-gun fire, the waiting for the relief or death, on Mount Calvary, this earth dead where torpedoes could only tear away rags of men and pebbles, and for which so many friends had already lost their lives. While the German picks announce that they are setting up a mine that will blow everything up.
Roland Dorgelès goes from one day to the next, from one situation to another, from one event to another, without transition: from the trench in the mud, to the rest in the gourbi where one escapes impossible dreams or, in the back, in the lively village with its shops, its bistrots. From one waiting to another: soup, letters, relief, attack, rain or bombs. Or death
He describes sinister places: all along the bank, wooden crosses, tinny and bare, made of planks or crossed branches watched the water flow … With the floods, the crosses were to go, over the gray water … But also the farm, the big room, all embalmed with soup … where he finds his chair, his bowl, his hooves, his little bottle of ink … find these things to oneself, these nonsense friends could never have seen again.
He guesses the thoughts of everyone, Gilbert Demachy, probably very close to his own, especially about those poor men who, alive, he had not always loved, because they were sometimes rude, the gesture and the spirit heavy. And their dreams, their hope despite a forced resignation. This hope is maintained by moments of happiness. It took the war to teach us that we were happy … Happiness is everywhere. It is the gourbi where it does not rain … the dirty litter where we go to bed … A pavement, nothing but a pavement, where to rest in a brook of mud, it is still happiness. But you have to go through the mud to find out. When the war is over, for five days …, far from the trench, far from the front line when, at rest, we end up with the surviving friends. A delirium on what we would give to return to the country: an eye, a leg …
Unbearable situations too: All in the gut … Without looking, we jumped. By touching the soft bottom with the foot … It was an infamous heap, a monstrous exhumation of waxy Bavarians on others already black, whose twisted mouths exhaled a rotten breath; a whole heap of jagged flesh, with corpses that had been said to have been unscrewed, feet and knees completely turned over… it was felt as a religious fear to walk on these corpses, to crush with foot these figures of men.
All in a beautiful and rich language that sometimes we do not dare qualify as poetic. Nevertheless, this book is a work of hope, of will to live, of small happiness of which one is only aware when one has lived the worst.
In this subjective, intimate narrative, Raymond Bernard’s film brings a more outward-looking, more desperate representation of war, through the apparent objectivity of images dominated by death. From the first image, during the credits, the flame of the unknown soldier: it will also be the last image. Then comes a battalion presenting the weapons, each soldier covered, in a fade, by a white cross and a double field of white crosses on ceremonial music, black cross field (German soldiers), white and black crosses and a large cross white – in memoriam. In the middle of the images which recall the enthusiasm of the beginning of war, commitment of the volunteers, departures by train, flowery and singing, a poster of mobilization, sound of bells with appearance of a portrait of mother.
War: devastated fields peopled with corpses, skeletons of trees, bomb holes where the soldiers are hiding, the German or French attacks of biffins (soldiers of infantry) which are nothing but machine-gun flesh; close up image with the dying man, Corporal Bréval, desperate, tortured to the last breath by the infidelities of his wife; the agony of Damarchy, the last sequence of the film, which never asked anything other than to keep hope until the end … and who moves, and who refuses to die, who hums to survive, v’là, le beau temps …
The main, specific, force of the film is probably the use of sound: the sound of this war, of that gun that is constantly on fire, far away or nearby, only disturbing or deadly. Who stops for a moment. A moment of happiness. Who resumes immediately. Who is getting closer. Who takes away lives. Randomly. Without any other defense than the trench, the gourbi or the bomb hole in which one sinks when it is possible. Waiting. Hazard.
Raymond Bernard used the new technique of sound film to overwhelm the viewer with the deadly force of the warrior technique: crackling machine guns, French or German, decimate men who run in an impossible assault; thunder of heavy artillery that destroys everything, explodes the earth with a thousand holes, petrifies trees and kills men. An artillery clash, infernal, that will last ten days, fifteen minutes of cinema, interspersed with cartoons – ten days – cartoons which, in silent films, still in the majority at the time, gave voice to men, fully alive now and, here, sink into the viewer’s head the duration of the hell, of mortal threat ..
Raymond Bernard imprisoned the film in the images of superimpositions of crosses at the beginning of the film, crosses on the youth battalion destined for the massacre, but also at the end of the film, cohorts of soldiers carrying white, French, or black, German crosses. Amount to sacrifice. Only death is victorious. Also superimposed on sound, when Demachy begs the Virgin to allow him to survive or, at least, to preserve the hope of living, always, now, at the hour of death. And we hear the faithful in the church, finish, in its place: so-be it.
The Wood Crosses, neither the film nor the book, are especially against the military – there are good and bad officers or under-officers, good or bad soldiers. The hardest, for those who die – Demachy, Bréval, it’s the thought of the carefree, unfaithful woman … For the one who comes back, alive – Sulphart – the woman soaring with the furniture, without a word, without a letter. As for the civilians, there is little question, the villagers who benefit, the others, in the back, are in an other world, even the parents of Demachy who Sulphart on leave, tried to talk about the front, do not understand …
But the soldiers, in their little moments of happiness in the heart of the slaughter, are also cold in front of the death of the other – the body of friends used to make a parapet, the dead no more tragic than the pebbles … How hard is the man, in spite of his cries of pity, as the pain of others seems light to him, when his is not mixed up!
The book and the film end differently. In the film, Demachy, murmurs while dying, here is the nice weather, cruel and derisory … In the book, Sulphart, with two fingers and two odds less, abandoned by his wife, is alive, surviving perhaps but alive , with memories. Of all the others we see the crosses.
In All Quiet on the Western Front, book and film, equivalent Germanic Les Croix de bois, one can find comparable differences: the books are more centered on the conditions of the soldiers. All are against the war, but in All Quiet, book and film, are more political than Les Croix, both against those who start wars and those who benefit, against the military and their accomplices, teachers and strategists in a bistro .
Roland Dorgeles says nothing of the cause of the war, which, being voluntary, must have seemed to him more or less legitimate. To which he adheres, in spite of everything, on several occasions: the repeated volunteering of Gilbert Demachy, to go to war and for missions to the front, in a way his double, I felt that he would be my friend… When, in the church, we sing Save, save France … how are we, with our eyes closed, our foreheads in our hands, that this song moves us to shake our throats!… At the moment of the attack, all the saps, all the trenches were full, and to feel so pressed, kidneys close kidneys , by the hundreds, by the thousands, we felt a sudden confidence. Hardy or resigned, we were only a grain in this human mass. The army that morning had a soul of victory… at the moment of the parade of victory, the conquest of a village in ruins, music in the lead, the general had risen on his stirrups and, with a great gesture of theater, a beautiful gesture of his naked sword, he greeted our flag, he greeted us … The regiment, suddenly, was no more than a single being. One pride: to be the ones saluted! Proud of our mud, proud of our sorrow, proud of our deads! … our pride of male winners. Which leads him to conclude, however, that there will always be wars.
On this aspect, the film deviates a little from the book: the song Save France! at mass in a village, is replaced by Ave Maria; during the victorious review, even if the regiment’s music restores the presence of the men who straighten up, the image of the general on his horse, a bit paunchy, shown counter-dive, is not that of a warrior triumphant at the head of his troops …
Les Croix de bois, book and film, are more focused on the lives of soldiers on the front than All Quiet on the Western Front : no military classes at the barracks, no permission, no prison camp, no adventures feminine, no parents … Les Croix was written just after the war. In the deceptive euphoria of a victorious hecatomb, even if book and film end before the armistice. The film was made thirteen years later. The euphoria of victory has faded. There remains the wound, the bleeding.
In 1932, the sound or speaking cinema exists only for a few years, Alan Crosland’s jazz singer was released in 1927, 20 theaters are sounded in 1929 and less than 50% of theaters (a thousand) in France are equipped to the projection of these new films in 1932.