By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Little Swee’ Pea” (1936), from Warner Home Video’s “Popeye the Sailor: 1933-1938, Vol. 1”]
Even the most seasoned filmhead must acknowledge, if only to him or herself, that there are helpless gaps in his or her education, that cinema, being a tumultuous, chaotic, century-long business-culture circus-with-a-million-rings, has encouraged much of what’s sublime to rise to the canonical surface but has left much scattered by the wayside. Historical excavations, performed for the most part by archival restorationers to some degree funded by the cinephiles’ DVD market, is the real entertainment news for our tribe, and thus it has been with Criterion’s release of two films by forgotten man Raymond Bernard. A leading figure in French cinema in the late ’20s and early ’30s, Bernard eventually fell victim to the vagaries of economics and French taste the epic, big-budget, big-message French film he represented soon fell victim during the ’30s to the far less expensive “poetic realism” trend, exemplified by Renoir, Carné, Pagnol, and Julien Duvivier. Truth be told, there isn’t an enormous difference between Bernard’s achingly lyrical, visually effulgent films and the works that supplanted them; French culture, as always, thrived on divisive perceptions and progressive aesthetics. Bernard’s two films here, “Wooden Crosses” (1932) and “Les Misérables” (1934) seem to form a kind of bridge between the gargantuan expressionism of Abel Gance and the more intimate verities of Renoir, displaying virtues from both camps. Of course, today the categories are more or less meaningless, and Bernard emerges like Lazarus from the cave.
“Wooden Crosses” turns out to be the greatest of the early talkie WWI anti-war sagas, beating out, to my mind, Milestone’s revered “All Quiet on the Western Front” and Gance’s “J’Accuse” (partly because the film is peerlessly cynical about military life and its purpose). The thrust is simple, taken from Roland Dorgelès’ novel: a ramshackle regiment of French trench soldiers are ordered from rueful leave time to front-line hellfire and back again and again, in a seemingly pointless undulation between irreverent downtime camaraderie and combat experiences that are tantamount to running into a plane propeller. Not very dramatic, technically (compared to something like Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory,” which directed its outrage at a single war crime, not war itself), Bernard’s film is all about the accumulated moments of human poetry lost in the mayhem. After one sudden night battle, Bernard cuts back to the sole casualty’s body, lying face down in the dirt, as yet another flare in the sky makes his shadow grow out like a spreading lake of blood. When the soldiers have their flashbacks, they imagine them (and we see them) in silence. A letter comes for a dead man, and another soldier launches out on a trek to shred it over the dead man’s impromptu hand-dug grave. The irony of a climactic siege in a corpse-littered cemetery is lost on no one; when they are sent marching yet again at film’s end, the men end up parroting the same dialogue they had in the beginning. Bernard’s thematic agenda, so soon after that war’s end left the French countryside scorched and littered with bones, is shoot-the-wounded: the war-dead ghosts walk in endless queues, and infinite fields of crosses act as a motif. (Samuel Fuller’s description of war as “body parts everywhere” graphically evokes “Wooden Crosses” more than any Western film of the pre-‘Nam period.) Throughout, Bernard’s camera is on a restless walkabout years ahead of its time there’re even chaotic battle scenes filmed from a handheld perspective, making this closeted relic feel utterly new. Bernard’s treatment of his character’s depths and breadths doesn’t impinge on Renoir’s ’30s war films, but the spirit and sympathy of its visual ideas definitely does.
“Les Misérables” uses Hugo’s novel to rectify that shortcoming in no other dramatized version, and that counts the wretched Broadway musical version, do Hugo’s characters establish such weight and presence. It helps that Bernard is faithful to the book hugely, meticulously so, to the tune of 281 minutes, providing Valjean, Javert, Cosette, et al. the patience and time to inhabit their grand story and make it leave a footprint on your brain, not simply a fleeting, abridged Classics Illustrated impression. Bernard’s visual palette became even nervier, evoking his character’s turmoil with a lurking, rocking, swiveling camera style the likes of which no one saw at large until the ’60s. As Valjean, mountain-faced Harry Baur is 100% downtrodden prison issue and zero slumming movie star; as Javert, a young Charles Vanel is icy and convincing without being villainous. But, as Hugo intended, the two men are just solitary figures lost in the bloody fog of French history, and this is what Bernard painstakingly evokes, with details and potent poetry an entire pre-industrial culture on the edge of collapse, progress and war. (Bernard was also obviously a fierce advocate for society’s exploited and neglected, which puts him in rare company in that glamour-struck era.) Bernard’s “Les Misérables” is a Gibraltar of a movie, and it’s difficult to believe that it was ever forgotten.
In other archival news, Warner has finally, finally packaged up what remains, next to Warner’s 40s-50s Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes tsunami, American animation’s most inspired and wildly imagined geyser of film: the Fleischer studio’s “Popeye the Sailor” cartoons, reaching from the forearm-distended barnacle bill’s debut in 1933 until 1938, when the comic’s original artist, Elzie Crisler Segar, died. This was not Disney’s brand of cute, anthropomorphic pratfall: this was animation unfettered by logic or even easily readable humor, an activating volcanic id of Surrealistic connections and bizarre transformations, inappropriate musical numbers and racist ker-splats, hyperbolic dream visions and often startling brutality. Sixty cartoons in all (including the two wannabe-“Snow White” epics redoing the Sinbad and Ali Baba tales), plus a surplus of nostalgic making-of docs, audio commentaries (welcome back, John Kricfalusi), and a brace of extras silent ‘toons, from studios Bray (from whence came Krazy Kat), and Sullivan (including a few with Felix the Cat), and from the “Out of the Inkwell” series.
“Raymond Bernard – Eclipse Series 4” (Criterion) and “Popeye the Sailor: 1933-1938, Vol. 1” (Warner Home Video) are now available on DVD.