Home Video Hovel: Many Wars Ago, by Dayne Linford
In a previous job, an annoying coworker often told me, citing Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket as proof, that a true anti-war film was essentially impossible, that to portray war in film meant to portray its excitement and drama and thus draw in young, impressionable souls, as opposed to driving them away with images of carnage and desolation. His theory was mostly based on the apparent love among the American armed forces for Kubrick’s film. While I can’t speak to Full Metal Jacket (both that and Paths of Glory are unfortunate blind spots that I still haven’t gotten around to uncovering), the older, more film-educated person I am now could bring up a couple films to counter his point, such as The Red and the White, which follows the changing fortunes of two sides of a long, brutal, and meaningless battle in the Ukraine during the Russian Revolution of 1917, as people are killed, executed, commit atrocities, attempt escape, betray, and follow absurd and deadly orders seemingly at random. Or I might have mentioned Many Wars Ago, Francesco Rosi’s 1970 World War I film, which has recently been restored and is now released in a solid blu ray package from Raro Video.
It’s pretty standard among war films that World War I means anti-war, whereas World War II means war is pretty shitty, but Nazis, right? Even so, Many Wars Ago is less a polemic against the existence of war itself (though there’s that) than a larger, systemic critique of the society and the power structures that both perpetuate and profit from war, and a portrayal of the reaction of the soldiers outside those power structures to their wholesale slaughter and apparent disposability. It largely charts this social exploration across three separate characters. General Leone, delivered in an excellent, subtle performance from Alain Cuny, a disciplined and tradition-bound general perverted to near madness by the very nature of the war he’s attempting to fight, acts as the representative of these power structures. Gian Maria Volonte plays Lieutenant Ottolenghi, an exhausted veteran and socialist who secretly subverts his superiors orders and hopes to lead the men against them when the time is right. Mark Frechette rounds out the trio as Lieutenant Sassu, a middle-class liberal (in the actual, not American political, sense of the word) who supports the war politically and asked to be transferred to this division to see some fighting. Though warped, fanatical and foolhardy, Leone possesses an extraordinary capacity for survival and a stubborn will to take and hold a commanding height while lacking the requisite artillery, thus throwing wave upon wave of his men at the enemy, to die by the thousands. This refusal to bend slowly begins to break the men under his command, fomenting mutiny, dissolution, and, for Sassu, at least, a complete loss of faith in the cause he once espoused.
Ultimately, though, plot is far from Rosi’s central concern – this film is atmospheric above all, meant to draw the viewer into the tedium of war as dread slowly dawns in the face of the next attack, the next suicidal order, the next hopeful opportunity for some kind of relief or freedom that always is just out of reach. Rosi accomplishes a true anti-war film by denying the audience the relief derived from exciting and tense battle sequences. Though at least 45 minutes of this film is spent on battle sequences, night raids, slaughters of one kind or another, Rosi consistently pulls back from the action, alienating the viewer by refusing to have the camera identify with any particular character, but forcing us into the role of passive observer. He first alienates then overwhelms you with the carnage and waste portrayed, allowing the tension, dread, and loss to build until he simply exhausts your faculties, suddenly identifying with the worn and hollowed faces you see on screen. Many Wars Ago is a particularly apt title because by the end of its hour-forty-minute runtime, it feels very much like many wars have passed, and they all were the same – a constant deluge of the same meaningless, cavalier waste of human life.
In a sense, Many Wars, with its leads’ – and often B characters’ – clearly stated political motivations, is a very political film. But, while mostly sympathetic to the farmers and unskilled workers who make up the great majority of the soldiers, the film doesn’t espouse a particular political viewpoint or message. Rather, it slowly deconstructs its characters’ politics, breaking them down piece by piece, subsuming them into this tidal wave of human waste. Though Ottolenghi is a socialist, the film itself, while deeply sympathetic to the plebian cause, is not, mostly because it ultimately rejects the optimism that lies at the heart of socialist thinking. Many Wars is a film about all of war, and treats its subject not as a political fracas but instead as a natural disaster, of such an overwhelming nature that it subsumes its victims into becoming the perpetrators of their own destruction. The act of refusal in the face of naked, brutal power is an heroic act, but it is also a futile one – someone else will yield, and the atrocity will proceed. As a film about the victims of war, the poor and powerless, this is exactly the right perspective – hopelessness, and the slim chance you’ll get lucky and leave your buried friends behind.
Naturally, a film so dedicated to atmosphere and replication of the reality of its primary subject – that is, war – leaves little room in its short runtime for any very complex characterizations. The performances are uniformly excellent, but our three leads suffer a little in the writing, left mostly to articulate their current viewpoints, few exceptions aside. Largely, however, the characters serve as placeholders to chart the differing political, emotional, and financial perspectives on the war and war in general, allowing the audience to engage with the film primarily on both an intellectual and purely instinctual level. Rosi is not interesting in extracting pity from his audience – he wants to both punch you in the gut and challenge your preconceptions of just what is worth this enormous destruction of human life, at the same time, forcing you to wrestle with both the intellectual and purely existential terror of war.
Raro Video’s release of Many Wars Ago was restored from a duplicate of the original negative and looks absolutely incredible, so much so that the 44 year old film looks as if it was shot yesterday. Special features include a restoration comparison and an interview with Francesco Rosi on the realization, making, and release of the film, which is quite interesting for his politics, what interested him about the novel the film was adapted from, and what he was trying to say by making it. The package also includes a booklet with numerous essays and excerpts from essays about the film, some contemporary to the film and others brand new. They provide a multiplicity of viewpoints, some more positive than others, that is quite fascinating. This is an incredible movie and a very good blu ray release.