The Great War still rages and the French troops are wondering if it will ever end, they feel as if they have been cold, damp and terrified for far longer than the three years it has taken to battle the German Army. One platoon stumbles into a village and finds little but rubble where the buildings used to be, and symbolically a white dove lies dead on the rim of the fountain, whose water is contaminated anyway and will offer no succour to the soldiers. One of their number, Jean Diaz (Victor Francen), feels a pang of conscience and snatches the bird's corpse away from where the others were planning to eat it, then buries it in the ground. Then he has to make peace - with one of his fellow soldiers.
Abel Gance had already made a film by the name of J'accuse back in 1919, a cry of cinematic anguish about how bone-chillingly horrible the First World War had been, and was evidently so impressed with the way it reached a crescendo he lifted it for this picture as well, though it was technically not a strict remake. They certainly shared themes and images, but there was, if anything, even more of a need for the anti-war sentiment on display here, for this was made in 1937 and released in 1938... you don't need me to tell you there was a Second World War approaching that Gance could do nothing to prevent, no matter his Herculean efforts to put his vehement opposition to any future conflict into cinematic form.
If you were being unkind you could observe that Gance was a victim of an almighty arrogance if he believed one movie could change the course of what even at the time looked like inevitable history, and it was true he was shrill in his voice of reason, but what was he going to do, knowing full well of the horrendous enormity that World War brought upon humanity? As a socially aware filmmaker, he could not very well ignore it, so he took the bull by the horns and made his own statement, partly as a reminder of what sheer Hell everyone had gone through in 1914-18, and partly as a plea for sanity if anyone thought making it happen again was a good idea, though that history was assuredly not on his side, and merely laughed in his face.
Therefore if Gance was essentially pissing in the wind with the thirties version of J'accuse, was there any benefit to watching it so far after the fact? The answer had to be yes, as while in its complete form it was rather long-winded until it arrived at that brutally vivid climax, wars had not ended in 1945, and he would have been dismayed to learn that in the following millennium it was no less relevant in its demands that armed conflict should be set aside so humankind could set about improving their lot and soaring to great heights instead of wallowing in the mire of violence, aggression and venality with a hefty dose of hypocrisy into the unlovely bargain. That the director was so over-emphatic, to the point of hysteria, made for an experience at once bizarre and understandable in its desperation.
The clock was ticking towards war when Gance was making this, and his scenes of the French troops in utter misery at the Front, and not at the Front for that matter, were some of the finest images to recreate that, especially so close to the origins of the conflict from our perspective. There was a story, centring on Diaz who agrees with François Laurin (Marcel Delaître) that he will not make a move on his wife Edith (Line Noro) despite being more in love with her than Laurin is, so after the fighting ceases Diaz moves to be with her and her daughter, but instead of breaking his vow he immerses himself in science to make society improve. The domestic scenes were the weakest element, as it looked as if Gance was impatient to get to his horrific denouement and realised he was burdening himself with his protagonist's love life, but when he finds out how to end all war, the results were at once in terrible taste and absolutely inspired, a clear influence on a certain type of shocker in a genre he would doubtless have turned his nose up at. Not to reveal too much, but you cannot imagine anyone getting away with this now - you could argue Gance didn't get away with it then, either. Music by Henri Verdun.
[The BFI's Blu-ray has an expert commentary and a gallery as special features, plus a booklet full of interesting bits and pieces.]