French director Abel Gance was perhaps the first European filmmaker to create movies on the epic scale achieved by D. W. Griffith in films like The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). The Americans had the advantage over their European counterparts in that their country had not been devastated by the First World War, which had consumed Europe just as epic cinema was coming into existence. It is perhaps not surprising then that the first European film to employ this similarly epic approach, Gance’s J’accuse (1919), took WWI as its theme. J’accuse tells two stories, really: the first, a melodramatic love triangle involving two men and their love for the same woman; the second, a harrowing and remarkably realistic depiction of the experiences of those two men fighting on the Western front. J’accuse pioneered the use of location shooting: much of its war scenes were filmed directly on the recently vacated battlefields of WWI and, in some cases, while the war was still in progress, thusly blurring the line between fiction and documentary.
Now, there are several aspects of this film that I’d like to touch on. First, J’accuse grapples with an issue that would confront David Lean decades later during the production of Dr. Zhivago: how does one depict a poet on the screen? How do we “show” poetry? Is it enough to just have the poet read his or her poetry, or is there some aspect of filmic language that can present a poetic worldview? The hero of J’accuse, the virtuous Jean Diaz, is a poet, and Gance’s treatment of his poetry is quite beautiful. Near the beginning of the film, Jean recites a poem called “Ode to the Sun,” and rather than presenting the words in the intertitles, Gance presents us with a series of beautiful images of the sun, reflecting in calm oceanic water, rippling across a rushing stream, and warming a grassy field. Jean’s words are thusly alchemically transmuted into pure imagery.
Later in the film, when Jean’s soul has been destroyed by war, he returns to his “Ode to the Sun” and rereads it, and this time Gance accompanies the tranquil images of happier times with the actual words of the poem onscreen. And it serves as a devastating contrast to the realities that Jean has confronted in battle; as far as Jean is concerned now, the words of the poem, and the beautiful images that they create, are lies. As one of the intertitles tells us, the “soldier in him destroyed the poet.”
Shifting our focus a bit here, I want to discuss the climax of the film, which is as memorable as anything you’ll ever see in cinema. A deranged Jean, having returned to his hometown in Provence, becomes obsessed with the idea that the survivors must render an account of their conduct to the war dead. This is part of where the title, J’accuse—“I accuse”—comes into play. Jean accuses the survivors, be they civilians or fellow soldiers. In fact, he accuses all of France, and the entire world order, for the irrevocable slaughter that has been perpetrated. Now, the phrase “j’accuse” would have deep associations in France; it is the title of the polemic with which Emile Zola reopened the Dreyfus Affair which tore apart French society in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s. J’accuse is the refrain of the just, venting their spleen on all the corruption and malignity hidden beneath the façade of polite society.
This image of the war dead as a surging crowd is best conjured up by T. S. Eliot in one of the most memorable passages of The Waste Land: “Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.” In the event of a zombie apocalypse, perhaps the risk is not that they’ll eat out brains; perhaps the real risk is that they’ll judge us.