Those interested in the First World War and what it was really like in the trenches will want to see the searing depiction of Wooden Crosses, a recently restored 1932 film that uses real war veterans as actors and advisors and achieves a documentary feel for the battlefield hell faced by the French 39th Infantry Division.

Directed by French director Raymond Bernard and based on a 1919 novel by a former corporal of the 39th Roland Dorgeles, the film was the first French talkie about WW1 and doesn’t spare the viewer the gore and horror of war, nor the assaults on the eardrums made by the different types of guns and cannons, an aspect Bernard took pains to get right.

Balancing this is the view, unpopular with the politicians on both sides waging the war of course, that the enemy we are trying to kill (and who are trying to kill us) are just ordinary men and probably jolly good blokes over a pint in the pub. A student conscript’s first sight of a German soldier illustrates this as he gazes, un-noticed, at the boy, no older than he is, singing beautifully as he keeps watch. On another occasion one of the French soldiers is shot and wounded as he tries to drag a wounded colleague to safety. The German soldier who has done the wounding then aims again to finish him off but is prevented from doing so by his compassionate officer, who tells him “That’s enough”.

Wooden Crosses was released on March 30th by Eureka Entertainment in a dual DVD/Blu-ray format as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. In addition to the restored 115-minute film it also features a wealth of background material including archive interviews with Dorgeles and Bernard as well as interviews with historians and film historians and a 36-page booklet with interviews and more archive items.

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