The 1937 version of Abel Gance’s (1889–1981) J’Accuse is hardly the director’s best film, but I thought it would it would make an interesting and instructive companion piece to the 1919 silent version, which we showed in the recent To Save and Project festival. (Gance’s La Roue is familiar to Museum audiences, and we were unable to screen Napoleon because of the restoration work currently in progress.) The 1937 film begins at almost the end of World War I, after the male protagonists in the story’s love triangle have been reconciled. The original, a peculiar but impassioned antiwar epic, was mostly taken up with the rivalry of the two for the heroine, which was finally interrupted by the coming of the war. So the 1937 film is only partially a remake. Most of its content is barely credible melodrama shot primarily in close-ups, and the only spectacular imagery for most of its length is gleaned from nightmarish wartime newsreels. This speaks to both Gance’s budgetary limitations and the limits of his imagination when dealing with subjects that don’t lend themselves to grandiosity. Much of the money he had seems to have been kept in reserve for makeup and extras in the film’s fantastical zombies-to-go climax.
It has become commonplace to pair the second J’Accuse with Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, another French film made that same year in the ostensible hope of avoiding World War II. I suspect, however, that Renoir was much too canny to think that his humanistic masterpiece would have any lasting effect on the real world. Gance, on the other hand, with his delusional ambition, probably fancied he could turn the trick with the overheated intensity of his vision. In La Fin du Monde (1931), after all, he had more or less destroyed the world, although it is not clear how the film ended, and it is similarly unclear at the end of J’Accuse how summoning the dead of World War I has much impact other than scaring the pants off some Verdun cemetery workers. It is probably not fair to question Gance’s motives too closely, but it is hard to reconcile his pacifism with his veneration of the mass-murdering thug Napoleon, and the proto-fascist tendencies expressed in some of his other films. There is reason to question whether Gance ever had anything consistent or coherent to say, or whether, for him, the medium was truly the message. Much of his sound career was taken up remaking his silent successes or producing fairly conventional costume pictures like Lucrece Borgia or his last two films, Austerlitz and Cyrano and D’Artagan. (By happy accident, Gance had had the actors mouth their exact words in the filming of Napoleon, enabling him to issue an abridged sound version, Bonaparte and the Revolution, in 1934, and updated in 1971.) In his own defense, Gance, stymied by producers who feared that his costly visual innovations might catch on with the public, said, “The films I made I describe as ‘prostitution,’ not to live but so as not to die…I did not have the problem of wondering whether I was guiding the characters or being led by them. I had to respect the established structures, outside which I could not stray.”
Gance’s inventions, like Polyvision, a widescreen process that anticipated Cinerama and CinemaScope by decades, cannot be ignored, as they tended to be at the time. The critic Bernard Eisenschitz wrote that Gance’s vision posed a threat “in calmly affirming the existence of artistic techniques which render current practices obsolete and demand that they be rethought.” Or, as Tom Milne has suggested, “he was one of the greatest masters of the image in the history of the cinema, and that should count for something.”