Gance's best and a great reference piece. This is everything NAPOLEON VU PAR ABEL GANCE should have been and more. I have only seen two of the four parts, as the film is serialized, but this is only half of my review, soon to add an addendum. As a reference to Brownlow's chapters in his chronicle of the making of NAPOLEON, this clearly illustrates Gance's passion for using the cinema to destroy war. This is one of the first, to my recollection and lack of documentation, antiwar films to be made, ever. It has a clear stance on war and a very blatant opposition, shedding light on an intricate domestic war between two households later forming a merger between the husband and his rival which really doesn't destroy the love triangle which Gance introduces the audience to, but excuses it, bringing to mind a later film, BED AND SOFA, made in Russia. Comparing the two films, it raises the question if there is a love interest between the two rivals, as they almost seem closer than friends by the gestures and over-the-top displays of questionable brotherly love. It is not as vulgar as it sounds. On the contrary, it is not vulgar at all, but displays three hopeless souls in search of love during a war which threatens to rip apart everything they hold dear. Shakepseare couldn't have done it better. Gance uses his rapid editing style uch better and with a deft sense of subtlety. His symbolic use of matte shots to depict the character of Edith as a Christ-like figure in opposition to the really Christian representative of Jean, through a black filtered matte shaped as a cross, is quite enthralling. Gance enlisted many actors that would be used again in La Roue, most notably the actor who protrays Francois, the drunken abussive husband wh would later play Sisif in LA ROUE. The film is as spellbinding as Raymond Bernard's LES MISERABLES, if not more so. It is earthy, but reaches out to the public with such sympathy, that it makes the film itself unforgettable. It is fast paced and very well developed and is truly a marvelous French epic which must be owned by every film fan. The current DVD presentation by David Shepard in cooperation with the Ntherlands Film Museum and Flicker Alley (to name a few) couldn't be better. The image is clear and the quality is so diverse that it will make your head spin. It also features a score compiled by Robert Isreal. Please do not ignore this film...it deserves attention.
ADDENDUM; The second half of the film is disappointing since the catharsis occured (or rather several of them occurred) during the first half of the film. In the second half, Jean goes mad from shell shock and escapes the army hospital. He reaches home and somehow his beloved doesn't realise that he's gone mad. He rounds up all of the villagers into Edith's household and declares that the dead veterans are reviving and returning home to make sure that they did not die in vain. This sounds like a great convention, but it just was not executed well. It was all done through a series of intertitles and close ups of Jean raving to the public. Inserted were melodramatic wide shots which depicted the battle field as Gustave Dore's rendition of Dante's Inferno. The main problem with this segment is that it took too little time to develop. If it has been more drawn out and less hurried it would have fit the flow of the rest of the film.
However, I would have to say that the film as a whole was more than excellent and much better than anything anyone else could have done. It was stark and very symbolic in style and the acting was spellbinding. And my complaint of the last portion of the film can be excused because it probably only exists in fragmentary form. I read in the insert of the DVD case that the restoration is not yet complete, assuming that there is more footage yet to be included. Once the Nedderlands Filmmuseum finishes, it may fit the flow of the piece and be corrected. It is a minor flaw, due to truncation over the years. This is the most complete version available and is really worth your time and money investing in it.