An ad for “I Accuse” in Exhibitors Herald, Nov. 5, 1921.
The “war to end all wars” ended November 11, 1918, at 11 am. After four years of butchery, gas attacks, hand-to-hand combat and trench warfare, soldiers walked away from their hellholes stunned by the conflagrations they had seen. Ambitious leaders seeking increased power amid growing nationalism, military rivalry and pure hatred inflicted gross bloodshed on their weary citizens. Many people around the world found the conflict a barbarous mess, a vast killing fields rendering munitions makers multimillionaires and ordinary men just cannon fodder. Many cried out for disarmament and the end to war.
One such patriot was renowned French director Abel Gance. Rejected from serving at the front due to lingering effects from tuberculosis, the young man served as stretcher bearer, carrying gravely injured men from the front. He abhorred the destructive war, writing in 1916: “How I wish all that those killed in the war would rise up one night and return to their countries, their homes, to see if their sacrifice was worth anything at all. The war would stop of its own accord, horrified by its own awfulness.” Turning his outrage and anguish into poetry and passion, Gance created the moving film “J’Accuse” in 1919, a powerful cry for universal disarmament and an indictment against victory at any cost.
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An elaborate lobby display in a theater showing “I Accuse,” Exhibitors Herald, Nov. 12, 1921.
To obtain actual battle footage, Gance asked to return to the front and found himself re-enlisted in the Section Cinematographique. He filmed the battle of Saint- Mihiel in September 1918 beside U.S. troops, and cut it into the film. Adding an extra poignant note, over 2,000 troops on leave from the front in Verdun took part in the film of the “return of the dead” sequence at the conclusion before returning back to their stations eight days later. Within a few weeks, 80% of the troops that had taken part in these scenes were killed.
“J’Accuse” soared to the top of the French box office that spring as thousands mourned the loss of friends and loved ones, their homes and their livelihoods. The three-hour film continued scoring at the box office as it traveled around Europe. It was the first fiction film to include authentic war footage revealing the physical as well as the human catastrophe.
English critics highly praised the film. Alder Anderson of the London Daily Telegraph called the film “…a scathing indictment of the those who deliberately provoked the greatest catastrophe in history and brought five years of untold misery on the world.”
Gance’s “J’Accuse” focuses on a love triangle between Edith (Maryse Dauvray), husband Francois Laurin (Severin-Mars) and poet Jean Diaz (Romuald Joube) to demonstrate war’s cruelty on friend and foe alike. The two men meet in the trenches of battle, with Francois suspecting Diaz of having an affair with his wife. Their tale becomes a microcosm for all the horrors and devastation inflicted by the war, intercut with battle footage and destruction behind the scenes.
The director and his cinematographer created impressive visuals using light poetically to reveal heightened emotions, ideas and symbolism. They employed moving camera, chiaroscuro, shadows, silhouettes, split screens, dissolves and other effects to demonstrate the horrors of fighting as well as the deprivations and drudgery at home, a glorious marriage of cinematic poetry and barbarous violence.
An ad for “I Accuse” in the Dec. 10, 1921, Exhibitors Herald.
Producer Marc Klaw recognized the film’s importance and negotiated to bring it to America. Variety reported October 29, 1920, that Klaw purchased the rights from Gance to distribute “J’Accuse” in the United States. First National then attempted to buy the rights to the film from Klaw for $100,000 in mid-April 1921, impressed with the film’s power. If they failed to buy all rights, they still hoped to release it.
Others didn’t look quite so kindly on it. Equity attempted to erect trade barriers to prevent foreign films from entering the country, and thus prevent it from being seen. Thankfully, they lost.
Klaw hired Hugo Reisenfeld to cut the picture and titles for U.S. release in exchange for 15% of the profits with Klaw and Gance splitting the rest 50/50. To gain free publicity and aid “J’Accuse’s” release, Klaw dedicated the film to President Warren G. Harding and the American public in the credits per April 8, 1921, Variety. A message from the president was inserted promoting arms reduction. The trade stated on April 1 that Klaw did this because it “was that it was such a tremendous philippic against war that one of the Austrian papers said that if this film had been seen before 1913 by a mass of people there would probably have been no war.” The producer also added footage showing American soldiers joining the fight and devised a happy ending. Besides all that, he decided to cut almost an hour from the film after critics savaged its length.
Gance arrived in New York in early May 1921 to attend the lavish industry screening at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, attended by such celebrities as Samuel Goldwyn, D. W. Griffith, Conde Nast and Pierre Cartier. After the presentation, the director spoke passionately about the through an interpreter. The May 21, 1921, Billboard reported on his speech, stating, “In simple and sincere language, he described his impressions of the Great Red Tragedy and the horror it inspired which caused him to write the book.” The trade noted that the film had been seen from London to Warsaw, Madrid to Tokyo, with Gance stating that cinema and its art put the film “in the visual language of tomorrow.”
The New York Tribune quoted Gance as saying, “I request you not to seek in my film any political intentions whatever. It is only a long cry against war, that in which all human beings must join me.” Thanks to Griffith’s and Goldwyn’s praise, United Artists negotiated the rights to distribute the film in America.
Billboard in its September 10, 1921, issue, called the film a “denunciation of war and forgetfulness.” A week later “J’Accuse” opened at the Strand Theatre in New York City, sponsored by the American Legion. Most critics lavished praise on the film, calling it a great screen drama and praising Gance for its excellent acting, camera work, and story, with some calling him a poet and mystic. Exhibitors’ Herald called it “a real work of art.” Billboard described the film as timely but harrowing. “Mr. Gance is a deep thinker, possessed of extraordinary artistic ability and it is my prediction that this young man will reach the height of fame not only in his own land, but in this country where every tongue is spoken. But as the unassuming gentle-voiced dreamer, he lives more in the shadow reflected through his artistic endeavors than in the turmoil of every day life.”
Variety called Gance France’s version of D.W. Griffith, and called the film “more a plea of international agreement for the limitation of arms as a means of preventing future wars.” The found the film harrowing and graphic but also powerful and real. The October 10, 1921, New York Times stated, “Mr. Gance makes pictures that live,” noting that while the film wasn’t perfect as American films, it is more sincere, honest, “vigorous and unavoidably lives. You cannot resist it and you cannot ignore it. It makes its people and its story real.”
In 1922 the Los Angeles Times called the film “sensational,” and “the greatest epic of the war that has ever been shown on the screen.” While they felt it jumped from place to place, it possessed sweeping power and images, with actors truly living their roles.
“J’Accuse” found mostly success across the country, going over big in large cities and breaking even in smaller markets, some of which screened it under the title “I Accuse.” In Exhibitors’ Herald, some exhibitors in smaller markets praised the film but stated that most of their audiences wanted to forget the war. A few others, on the other hand, called it bunk.
Billboard stated that “the producers have given a mammoth production to this at all times sorrowful tale of the great tragedy. The entire film is submerged in sorrow, in tears and remorse. The jealousies and bickerings of the first part of the picture faded into insignificance by the magnitude and grandeur of the battlefields, where the dead where strewn about, hundreds upon hundreds, rows upon rows, like wounded animals…death stalked all through the picture.”
The concluding scenes overflowed with emotion and power, selling the film’s powerful anti-war message. The Press Democrat in June 9, 1921, quoted an unknown reviewer, stating, “the great moment of the motion picture and one of the greatest moments of all pictures comes when the soldier dead arise from their graves and go forth to see whether the world has profited by their sacrifice, or whether they have died in vain. It is a marvelously impressive scene, particularly when the solemn march of the dead, silent and unheard, is compared with the glorious parade of the living through the Arc of Triomphe.”
Gance’s haunting and fierce images of cinematic phantoms rising from their graves to march home and confront/haunt the living provide indelible memory of all that was lost in this pitiful war in order that others might gain power and wealth. Let us all not forget the soldiers’ gigantic sacrifice and honor their tremendous sacrifices today as part of Veterans’ Day remembrances and memorials for the end of World War I.