I haven’t seen the 1919 silent J’accuse by Abel Gance that is sometimes called a masterpiece.* Alas, Gance’s own sound remake is a mess. Gance correctly sensed that war was brewing in Europe, but it’s unclear whether his anti-war message is for the sake of peace or, treasonously, German ambition. In any case, the French filmmaker is typically grandiose. The heft of his style crushes the spirit out of whatever motive he possessed. Even the film’s dedication confounds; it reads in part, “To the war dead of tomorrow.”
Jean Diaz exhorts comrades-in-arms in the Great War to pursue their ultimate sacrifice for the sake of peace; this is, after all, “the last war.” So many deaths, though, propel him post-armistice into an activist role. Sacrificing a normal life in sympathy with those fellow combatants for whom he recommended sacrifice, Diaz dedicates himself to inventing a machine that will end war, but it falls victim to war profiteers and governmental interference. At the last, Diaz invokes the ghosts of France’s fallen soldiers to rise and protest the new war into which France is now sliding. They indeed appear, in effect accusing the living of breaking faith with the dead.
The film’s two celebrated passages are the horrific glimpse of war at the outset and the fantastic conjuring of ghosts at the end. For me, especially the latter is mannered, academic stuff, but far worse is the mostly tedious melodrama that is sandwiched in between.
Napoléon (1927) likewise suggests that the self-important Gance had great difficulty conceiving of a work as a whole. He impresses in patches—for instance, the passage where the heavily destined child, playing with friends, is already an accomplished war strategist: a forceful scene, but, really, when you think about it, a ridiculous one.
* I have now seen the original and have written about it on this blog.