There’s a word for a film that transports you through time and space; films that are specific and the audience can see themselves in. 80 years later, still true today as when it first showed in Paris, Wooden Crosses is transcendent.
This is partly because of the nature of war, partly because of the human, tragic resilience in the face of such horror.
Wooden Crosses is a World War I film made soon enough after the conflict to cast real veterans. Additional details that lend authenticity include large vistas and sets that are, at least to my modern eyes, indistinguishable from reality. The immersion is complete.
The film follows one group of soldiers who are just regular, everyday guys; bakers and day laborers, along with a fresh young student joining up near the end of the war. Camaraderie is not a modern invention. These characters are familiar. Sometimes I forget in our world of smart bombs and drone pilots that the same human element is shared by people of different tongues and stripes who get caught up in the giant machine of war. And it is a machine, slow moving, hanging darkly over men.
Like war, this film is exhausting. From the very opening, lined up men fading out and wooden crosses fading in, you know this is going to be a heavy experience.
A particular sequence stands out in my memory. Our soldiers are dug in on a mountain. Every day they sit and listen to the clink-clink of progress being made on tunnels underneath them. It is only a matter of time before explosives are in place. At the last minute they are relieved by another group of soldiers. Glad to be out of the impending slaughter, they march down the mountain. At the bottom we and the soldiers see the top of the mountain where they were staying, it then explodes.
The film is full of moments like this, that capture both the ominous waiting and the mortal gambles of war. That’s not to say things never get kinetic or conventionally dangerous. With an ending that matches energy and tragedy, Wooden Crosses ensures its place as one of the most enduring war films.
On top of all this, the film looks incredible.
Wooden Crosses is playing at the Union Theater Thursday the Feb. 12.