A Word From the Editor
Six works to consider at the start of the commemorations of World War I: two classics, two more recent films that brought new perspectives on the war, and two works fresh off the presses.
Henri Barbusse’s Le feu bears witness to the carnage at the front for the infantryman caught in the maelstrom, performing his tasks with resigned stoicism, hoping for better days. Barbusse’s socialism erupts with a fervent call (in 1916 already) for this be the last conflict, for the people to stand up to their governments, to the war profiteers, denouncing nationalistic propaganda and the myths about the heroic nature of warfare, urging them to recover the spirit of the Revolution and to work toward equality among all men. It won Barbusse the Prix Goncourt in 1918. As Susan Grayzel explains, the book’s publication in the middle of the war set the tone for famous memoirs to come, breaking the wall of silence about “what was really going on.”
The impotence of the soldier stuck in muddy trenches thus emerged as the dominant image of the Great War. As Robin Walz explains, Jacques Tardi’s graphic novels strive to restore the immediacy of the horrors and the pointlessness of the conflict to generations inured to it by over-exposure. Walz forcefully argues that this medium engages students on the war far better than either novels or films.
Jean Echenoz also presupposes knowledge of events in his terse retelling of the war’s effect on five young men, starting with their mobilization in August 1914. He revisits the tropes of loss of innocence, the miseries of war, profiteeting, social discrepancies, and disabled veterans. Two aspects, however, seem to Martha Hanna implausible. The sexual freedom of the one female character who flouts the “laws of decency” without repercussions, and the execution for cowardice, favored by script-writers, but in reality little used, espcially at that point in the war.
The passivity of the WWI soldier is challenged in one of cinema’s great classics, Jean Renoir’s La grande illusion. The prisoners-of-war played by Jean Gabin, Marcel Dalio, and Pierre Fresnay, despite their different backgrounds, have only one thing in mind: to escape. Jay Winter situates the work within the war-movie genre, pointing out the brilliance of Renoir’s choices in what he tells and what he merely alludes to. He manages by this very indirectness to bring the experience of war closer to us than ever before.
Passivity is also eschewed by Roger Vercel whose Capitaine Conan won the Prix Goncourt in 1934. It was filmed to great acclaim by Bertrand Tavernier in 1996. Vercel’s highly flawed hero heads a special commando on the Eastern Front, which very effectively disregards all rules of war in its assaults (including on civilians) and is called to answer for such crimes by an army that seeks to control and disavow its vanguard activities. John Cerullo masterfully situates the army’s ambivalence toward “Conan-types” and the exceptional justice that they can use to restrain men like him as well as to punish the recalcitrant and the shell-shocked.
With similar deftness, Rick Fogarty discusses the multiple layers of Black and White in Color, a satire on war and colonialism set in the Ivory Coast during the Great War. The handful of white French residents and their two priests are no better than racist buffoons who mistreat the local black population and force them to fight against the Germans across the river. But the story of the seemingly broad-minded Fresnoy who turns into a Kurtz-like tyrant is the most compelling, showing how intelligence if unchecked can lead to hubris and moral corruption. In the guise of a war film, colonialism itself is under fire.
University at Buffalo, SUNY
Table of Contents
‘French Savages’: War and Colonialism in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Black and White in Color, by Richard S. Fogarty
The Dangers of Valor: Roger Vercel’s and Bertrand Tavernier’s Capitaine Conan, by John Cerullo