Masters Of Cinema #105 - Wooden Crosses (Les Croix de Bois) - Blu-ray Review

'A captivating portrayal of warfare on screen by any standard, made all the more remarkable considering the film is now well over eighty years old'.

Originally released two years before his 300-minute epic film adaptation of Les Misérables (which is numerically, if not chronologically, the succeeding release in the Masters Of Cinema series) Raymond Bernard's Wooden Crosses clearly holds aesthetic similarities to the director's later film. It also feels like a work Bernard may have learned some lessons from as he went into Les Misérables, as there are aspects that the director handles much more successfully in that film than he does here.

Where Wooden Crosses can rarely be faulted is in its authentic representation of World War One. The work of cinematographer Jules Kruger is superb throughout, vividly recreating on screen everything from living conditions in the trenches to conflict in No Man's Land. There are numerous occasions where, such is the attention to detail from Kruger, what he puts on screen could easily be mistaken for photographs from the actual war.

Bernard's direction regularly complements the work of Kruger, with several stand-out sequences to be found throughout Wooden Crosses two-hour running time. A scene depicting soldier Gilbert (Pierre Blanchar) bringing a tardily delivered letter to the grave of a fallen comrade is particularly moving, as is a sequence at the film's centre depicting a church simultaneously being used for a religious service and as a front line hospital. The director's use of sound throughout Wooden Crosses is also impressive, at times incessantly bombarding us with the cacophony of shell blasts and machine gun fire, at others allowing scenes to starkly play out in complete silence.

Bernard's greatest achievement here, however, is a twenty-minute sequence near the commencement of Wooden Crosses' second hour, depicting an unforgiving battle to capture a village barely recognisable due to its artillery-ravaged state. It's a captivating portrayal of warfare on screen by any standard, made all the more remarkable considering the film is now well over eighty years old.

Whilst Wooden Crosses is frequently an excellent historical recreation of World War One, as a narrative piece of cinema however it unfortunately feels less impressive. Bernard drifts in and out of telling an actual story, at times presenting Gilbert as the film's primary focus but at others simply allowing events to play out as a series of loosely connected vignettes. Whilst this allows him to show a broad spectrum of the lives of front line soldiers during the war, it does give Wooden Crosses a frustratingly unfocused feel at times. Neither Gilbert nor any other member of his unit are ever given any true depth, limited to scraps of information about their lives before the war at best.

Bernard's pacing is also an issue at times. The film's first hour is undeniably plodding, at times to the point of exasperation. A segment in which the soldiers discover the enemy tunnelling under their trench in particular lacks any sort of urgency, infecting the film with a torpidity which only subsides when we reach the aforementioned village battle sequence. It's telling that, whilst Wooden Crosses is under half the length of Bernard's Les Misérables, its lack of dynamism at times makes it the more laborious of the two films to get through.

Wooden Crosses therefore ends up as the sum of its positive and negative elements. It is undeniably worth watching for its authentic and engaging depictions of conflict, particularly for war film fans and historical enthusiasts. Taken as a whole however, it falls short of greatness due to Bernard's relative problems with story and pace, something which the director thankfully improved upon for his subsequent film.

Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.

Wooden Crosses was released in the UK on Monday 30th March 2015

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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