Les Croix de bois: An Encounter with War

Cinematekene arrangeres av de digitale cinematekene i Bergen, Kristiansand, Lillehammer, Oslo, Stavanger, Tromsø og Trondheim, og Montages setter gjennom ukentlige artikler fokus på filmene som vises. Kalender og mer informasjon finner du her. Les Croix de bois vises for første gang torsdag 27. april i alle byene, bortsett fra Kristiansand.


In a famous scene from Abel Gance’s J’accuse (1919), hundreds of fallen soldiers, sprawled across the battlefield, rise up from the dead and march into town to see if their sacrifice has served any purpose. Upon its release, Raymond Bernard’s Les Croix de bois (Wooden Crosses, 1932) was also seen as a pacifist march of death.

In the words of Henry Malherbe, founder of the French Veterans’ Writers’ Association, Les Croix de bois is “in a way a miraculous resurrection whereby French soldiers from the last war appear to us unveiled; those who gave their lives seem to have broken out of their stone tombs to reveal themselves and tell in their own voices how they lived, how they suffered and how they died […]” (Pour Vous, 17 March 1932).

The image of soldiers coming back to life is all the more powerful considering the context of the film’s release. Les Croix de bois emerged at a time when it seemed as if a wave of peace was passing over Europe. The film was shown in Geneva to delegates of the League of Nations during the World Disarmament Conference in the presence of some of its actors. One magazine told its readers that Gilbert Demachy, Sulphart, and the Corporal Bréval “seem to walk out of their tombs to curse the war and to address the League of Nations with a moving call for peace” (Pour Vous, 24 March 1932).

Actor Charles Vanel said that if he had the courage to address the audience that evening he would have told them that “if the 15 million dead to whom this film is dedicated could also rise from the dead tonight, 15 million voices would join those of the Disarmament Congress in favour of this sublime work: peace” (Pour Vous, 24 March 1932).

Les Croix de bois is an adaptation of a 1919 novel by Roland Dorgelès. Dorgelès was a journalist before the war and wrote the book during the war as a vivid account of trench warfare. Émile Natan, artistic director for the company Pathé-Natan, asked Raymond Bernard if he would adapt the novel for the screen. After some initial setbacks Bernard went ahead with shooting during the summer of 1931. Without a central hero or a linear plot, the film puts meaninglessness and banality at the centre of the viewing experience. Rather than constructing the film with a clear temporal framework Bernard works to undo our sense of time. The best description of the film is offered by author Henry Malherbe, who in 1932 wrote: “We are invited to spend several months in the trenches with a squadron. We shiver to hear the compelling or sorrowful confessions of our companions returned from the dead” (Pour Vous, 17 March 1932).

Although he initially felt intimidated after watching Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and G.W. Pabst’s Westfront 1918 (1930), Bernard felt that he could offer something new by making a film that veterans would recognize as a true account of the war. Bernard deftly introduces hints of anti-authoritarian sentiment without the heavy philosophical speeches of earlier war films. In fact Bernard made this film as a direct response to what was broadly perceived in France as the American artifice, melodrama and bombastic special effects in The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925) and All Quiet on the Western Front.

Like Abel Gance in J’accuse!, Bernard used only veterans in his film. What counted for Bernard was that they know how to throw a grenade, carry a rifle and march. It was partly this minute attention to details of the mise-en-scène that gave Les Croix de bois its gripping realism and partly the conditions under which the shooting took place: on location where the actual battles were fought, in the area around the city of Reims.

The on-location shooting made the making of the film a challenge of epic proportions. Before shooting could commence, the army was called in to check the ground for unexploded shells, which could potentially have had disastrous effects. The Minister of War cooperated with Raymond Bernard, and although he was offered young recruits for the film, Bernard accepted only a loan of artillery, preferring to use veterans who had experienced the war firsthand. Such attention to documentary realism led José Germain to write, “Truth! Truth Truth! That is the only criteria for this film, which is even better than the masterpieces inspired by the war: Westfront 1918 by Pabst and Verdun, Visions d’histoire by Poirier” (Comoedia, 18 March 1932).

«All Quiet on the Western Front» (Milestone, 1930).

Indeed the contemporaneous critical judgment of Les Croix de bois differed from other similar war films. In one ciné-club debate the film critic and filmmaker Lucie Derain stated that cinephiles and critics cannot judge the film as they do others, arguing that those who had not fought in the war themselves were unqualified to make a critical judgment (Pour Vous, 7 April 1932). Indeed as we learn in the interview with Roland Dorgelès on the Masters of Cinema DVD edition of the film, the writer stipulated that his own former regiment, the 39th infanterie, watch the film before the general public.

On 17 March there was a gala presentation of the film at the Moulin Rouge. Just as Raymond Poincaré had attended the gala of Léon Poirier’s film Verdun, visions d’histoire at the Gaumont Palace in March 1929 (Cinémagazine, 15 March 1929), so President Paul Doumer was among the Ambassadors, ministers, generals, princesses and counts at the Moulin Rouge that evening (Comoedia, 18 March 1932; Cinémagazine, April 1932).

Raymond Bernard described his embarrassment at inviting Doumer to such an ill-famed venue as the former music-hall, the first time the French President had been to a cinema in his official position. He needn’t have worried: The President appears to have grasped that the film was no mere entertainment, but rather a representation of the tribulations of an entire nation. Although Bernard used unknown veterans to play secondary roles, the squadron includes popular actors Charles Vanel, Gabriel Gabrio, Pierre Blanchar and avant-garde figure Antonin Artaud. Whatever stardom they may have had, Bernard’s camera works to efface it by privileging group shots rather than close-ups, and by balancing the screen time of the actors so that the central group of characters blur together with the mass of extras. In this, the film distances itself from American war films, putting camaraderie and collective identity over individual heroism.

One of the first images we see is of a cross engraved with the words In Memoriam. The film was indeed meant as a literal memorial to the dead, with one critic calling it “a marriage between art and memory” (Comoedia, 18 March 1932). As veterans, the actors saw themselves as not really acting, but rather re-enacting the battles that took place in Champagne. As Pierre Blanchar said, “By portraying Gilbert Demachy on screen I had the impression of serving my country a second time” (Pour Vous, 24 March 1932). Visible traces of the destruction meant that reminders of the suffering were all around them, the military cemetery on Le Mont Cornillet and the village of Neuvillette still in ruins where the ten-day assault takes place. Blanchar had himself fought in the trenches and was wounded twice, in 1916 and again in 1918 (Cinémagazine, November 1932).

Reliving a collective trauma

As Raymond Bernard was making Les Croix de bois, he was taking up a challenge presented by recently released war films from the United States and Germany, which were hugely popular in Paris. To compete, Bernard had to do better. (Comoedia, 18 March 1932). Upon its release the film was described as “of a realism infinitely more humain than Westfront 1918” (Jacques Sempré in Cinémagazine, April 1932).

Only fifteen years after the war, the earthly wounds of the battle had not yet healed. The film crew had only to dig up the old trenches for shooting. This was a gruesome business; Bernard recalls that several corpses were found while they worked. Furthermore, the area was little equipped, and the cast had to sleep in rudimentary shelters close to the trenches. Charles Vanel, who played Corporal Bréval, told Pour Vous magazine, “For two months, we really were soldiers again.” He remembers, “The life that we lived during those two months made it easy for our memories to become reality. We only lived in makeshift shelters in and around the trenches. Because most of the filming was done at night, that’s where we stayed. While we waited for night to fall or for the sun to rise we’d get together in a dugout, and like long ago, each told a story or sang a song.” (Pour Vous, 24 March 1932)

And in what is now a well-quoted phrase, he exclaimed, “We didn’t have to act, we just had to remember!” (Pour Vous, 17 March 1932). Roland Dorgelès told one newspaper, “The main scenes in the film were shot along the Laon road, which was for a long time our sector. And I’m sure that my brothers in arms will feel the same gripping emotion before this authentic vision of an enduring past that I felt when for the first time I was witness to Raymond Bernard’s film.” (Comoedia, 18 March 1932).

A surreal dimension that added to the shooting experience was the constant crowd of solemn onlookers who came to watch the battle scenes, among them many locals who had themselves fought in the battle being reenacted. Gabriel Gabrio, who played Sulphart, remembered, “As we were shooting the assault of a trench in La Pompelle, a man who was watching us, still young in appearance, suddenly burst into tears. He was a former soldier who had fought on this exact spot and he was reliving his trauma from the past” (Pour Vous, 17 March 1932).

This authenticity was a requirement for war films made in France at that point in time. In February 1928 Minister of Education Édouard Herriot had complained that the war was being used to add a colorful background to fiction films (Cinémagazine, 24 February 1928). Laurent Véray reminds us that the difficulty of recording footage of actual battles meant that the fictional battles in films like Verdun, Visions d’histoire and Les Croix de bois were some of the first to be seen by French audiences (Véray, 2010). To add to the sense of proximity, in August 1931 Pathé-Natan satisfied the curiosity of French audiences by organising for journalists to travel from Paris to Reims to report on the film in two tourist planes.

We see little of the home front in Bernard’s film, but a solemn picture is painted of a population completely out of touch with the horrors of the trenches. In Paris Demachy’s girlfriend dances so much that she breaks a heel, war profiteers enjoy lavish meals and the cinemas are full. When Demachy’s leave is cancelled, Sulphart puts his hand on his shoulder to comfort him, and the heavy melancholy of the moment emphasises the impossibility of a return to normal life.

The strange sound of war

With Les Croix de bois, the French were able to tell their own story of the war, with their own veterans and more importantly in their own language. In these first years of talkies, they were exposed to foreign languages in the cinema more than ever before. Two years before the gala screening for Les Croix de bois at the Moulin Rouge, in January 1930, the cinema showed Fox Movietone Follies of 1929, featuring an all-singing, all-dancing Broadway show screened with the American songs and dialogue. Upon leaving the cinema, André Lang – who later would collaborate on the dialogue for Les Croix de bois – heard one young boy complain: “What on earth? This isn’t Liverpool!” (La Femme de France, 16 January 1930).

As Douglas Gomery tells us in The Coming of Sound, by the Summer of 1929, the major Hollywood studios had switched their production from silents to talkies, but that same summer only six Parisian cinemas were equipped to show sound films (Gomery, 2005).

Pathé-Natan was the first company to embrace sound film, making the first French talkie Les trois masques (1929), directed by André Hugon. In 1931 alone Pathé-Natan made more than 20 films in the Joinville studios and the Rue Francoeur studios. By the end of that year the firm had 250 cinemas, 220 of which were equipped for sound. With the coming of sound, Pathé-Natan recruited directors who could draw a crowd, and Raymond Bernard was one such director. He had shown himself capable of directing historical super-productions with many extras in Le Miracle des loups (1924) and Le Joueur d’échecs (1926).

Bernard uses sound for dramatic effect in Les Croix de bois by creating a disjunction between sound and image. This separation arises either because the source of the sound is off-screen—in the case of the injured soldier crying out from no-man’s-land—or because there is a dissonance between the sound and image within the frame. The latter occurs, for example, with the soldiers singing about plum trees in bloom on a balmy summer’s day while the camera fixes a muddy puddle and the grim, steady march of military boots, or when a lone enemy soldier reveals his humanity by singing a funereal rendition of Schumann’s Aus meinen Tränen sprießen (“from my tears burst many full-blown flowers…”) at a German post.

It also happens when Sulphart jokes, “I’m off to the beach” to Fouillard, who doesn’t understand and replies, “But it’s not the season.” Verbal quips like this create a disjunction between what we see and what we hear, further illustrating the absurdity of war, a sense of absurdity that is heightened by the soldiers’ own loss of identity on the front. Thus, during the distribution of knives, a soldier asks, “What do you want me to do with that? I’m a bookseller in civilian life.”

Sound is also used to create a sense of collective identity. In several scenes, a line is spoken by one soldier and then whispered by another in a continuous chain that creates a layered soundscape. The homogeneity of the squad is communicated early on in the film when the soldiers, in their passage through the trenches, have to step through barbed wire. The first soldier shouts “Mind the barbed wire,” a caution repeated by each soldier until it becomes a low whisper. Another example is the graveyard scene, when the soldiers echo the words “Bréval is killed,” the voice passing through the squadron, spoken by soldiers who are indistinguishable in the obscure lighting.

During the victory parade one soldier shouts, “We took the village! It was us! It was us!” Others repeat the jubilatory line, but without a close-up of a jubilant speaker we remain unconvinced of the victory; instead, Bernard prefers to show us the face of an elderly woman wearing a solemn expression, perhaps bereaved of a son during the fighting. And finally, while Demachy lies dying in the dirt under a mutilated stump that was once a tree, another soldier cries from outside of the frame, “Hey fellas! Don’t arrive too late!” To the very end, Bernard avoids reducing the film to the story of one individual, consistently showing the collective, alienating tragedy of the war.

«Napoleon» (1927).

Watching from the front

It is noteworthy that Bernard’s cinematographer was Jules Kruger, who had previously worked as a news reporter. Kruger had also collaborated with Abel Gance for the historical epic Napoleon (1927), where he had thrown his camera from a cliff, strapped it to a horse, and developed other portable camera techniques which, according to Gance, “makes the spectator an actor, the spectator who up until this point had been passive is no longer watching, he is participating in the action” (Cinémagazine, 12 July 1929). Kruger brought this same camera mobility to Les Croix de bois. Instead of entering the film through a proxy, our only viewpoint is that of the extremely mobile camera.

With the camera often placed at ground level, at the end of the film we, too, are weary, fatigued by the camera’s constant movement to keep up with the soldiers, all the while in the mud and the dirt. The use of long tracking shots along the trenches, no doubt inspired by Pabst’s technique in Westfront 1918 (1930), give the feeling that the camera is fully participating in the action.

Henry Malherbe wrote that in making this film, “Raymond Bernard let himself be led by Roland Dorgèles like Dante by Virgil” (Pour Vous, 17 March 1932). In turn it is Bernard who leads us into the ugly depths of trench warfare.


Annie Fee (b. 1984) is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at University College London (UCL). She is working on a book about 1920s Paris film culture and the emergence of cinephilia.


Gomery, Douglas. The Coming of Sound: A History. New York ; London: Routledge, 2005. 89.

Véray, Laurent. “1914–1918, the First Media War of the Twentieth Century: The Example of French Newsreels.” Film History 22, no. 4 (2010): 408–25. 421.

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