Some films, being neither fish nor fowl, slip between the cracks of history. By their very nature uneasy fits into any prescribed genre, Abel Gance's passionate pair of anti-war films, both titled J'Accuse (1919 and 1937, respectively), remain difficult-to-screen obscurities. It took the efforts of film historian, archivist, and restorer Kevin Brownlow to reawaken dedicated cinema lovers to the existence of Abel Gance in the 1960s, when Brownlow took it upon himself to seek out, engage with, and labor for years to restore and re-present Gance's work to the public. The June 1968 BBC broadcast of Brownlow's excellent documentary Abel Gance: The Charm of Dynamite is as handy a landmark as any for the reemergence of Gance's prominence as one of the pioneers and master filmmakers of the silent and early sound eras.
The premiere Gance title to emerge and regain prominence in that process was of course Gance's masterpiece Napoleon (1926/27), boosted further by Francis Ford Coppola's US showcasing of the film in 1981 (with a new score by his father Carmine Coppola). That restoration was the result of decades of work by Brownlow, yielding incomplete restorations that were screened in 1973 and later in 1979; the 1981 Coppola-Zeotrope Studios funded revival marked a significant stage in the restoration process, but as Brownlow noted in his final sentences of his essay in the Napoleon program book, "...the reconstruction continues. Already, another fragment has appeared. Will the work ever be finished? I shall be sorry when it is..."
Brownlow labored similarly over reconstructions of Gance's sound remake of J'Accuse, though that film never earned the prestige, prominence, or visibility of Napoleon. Like all of Gance's films, and many other foreign imports, J'Accuse had suffered many cuts and many versions. Though I won't bore you with the details, suffice to say the original silent J'Accuse slipped into obscurity before the close of the silent era, though no less prominent an artist than D.W. Griffith (whose own WW1 drama Hearts of the World was completed shortly before the US debut of Gance's more passionate, visionary anti-war epic) proclaimed it a masterpiece, "history written with lightning".
Gance's sound remake suffered a similar fate: given the Third Reich's invasion and occupation of France soon after the debut of J'Accuse, the film was banned in Gance's native country. In Britain, it's horrific nature landed it the dreaded 'H' (for horror) certificate, while its US distributors originally released the film (in cut and subtitled form) as an art film; alas, despite its pedigree (as a French film made resisting Hitler's march on the Eve of that country's occupation), it, too, suffered for being too horrific. Retitled That They May Live (from the Biblical scripture quotation), the film opened to solid reviews but its horror element -- the climactic march of the living dead soldiers, many played by hideously disfigured WW1 vets rather than actors in makeup -- coupled with America's ongoing aversion to entering the war led to J'Accuse being shunted from prestige theaters to New York City's premiere horror movie grindhouse, The Rialto. Alas, despite its impact, a subtitled French film alienated that audience, too, and J'Accuse/That They May Live was deemed uncommercial. Dumped into roadshow obscurity, lacking the exploitation elements (sex and controversy) that launched the foreign film market in the US of the 1940s and '50s, Gance's passionate masterwork was relegated to rare late-night TV broadcasts in few markets until Brownlow's resurrection of Gance's reputation in the 1960s and '70s.
One would think the restored J'Accuse might have found favor in the anti-Vietnam, counterculture-fueled marketplace of the midnight movie circuit of the early 1970s, but I cannot find any evidence of a savvy booker or theater manager even attempted such a thing. Playing it on a double-bill with Romero's Vietnam-War-come-home Night of the Living Dead might have been a natural, and lest one believe midnight movie audiences would have per se rejected a subtitled film, don't forget the first of all 1970s midnight movies El Topo was subtitled. But that's a pipedream -- it never happened, nor was attempted.
Once again slipping between the cracks, J'Accuse quietly vanished, attracting neither arthouse audiences nor horror buffs. Both versions remain sadly neglected masterpieces to this day -- even for a diehard videophile like me, the silent version tooks years to track down in the gray market, finally surfacing in a French-language only version from indy convention label Moonlight Cinema. As for the sound remake, for years Sinister Cinema has offered the cut US 1939 release That They May Live, which is worth seeing, but only if you are unable to track down a copy of the long out-of-print 1991 vhs release J'Accuse from Connoisseur Video. It's the most complete version I've ever seen, and as such the one to buy; still, that edition suffers from footage long missing from the shattering climactic reel. In their excellent book Abel Gance (1978, Twayne Publishers), authors Steven Philip Kramer and James Michael Welsh cite Gance biographer Roger Icart's account of missing footage in which the dead and their powerful wave "stop planes from flying and armies from marching... The frightened nations of the world ban war and proclaim the Universal Republic. The dead can then return to their cemetaries" (Kramer & Welsh, pg. 77). None of this survives in the 1991 restoration, and the finale indeed feels rushed and truncated after the march of the dead soldiers, ending with the torching of the film's crazed hero Jean Diaz (an extraordinary performance by Victor Francen) and the walking dead lifting his body from the pyre as Jean at last joins his fallen comrades from the First World War.
Seen today, both versions of Gance's J'Accuse stand as magnificent works of cinema, and among the key works of the horror genre from any country. In this era of DVD revivals and restorations, is it possible that some innovative label will package a complete, two-disc edition of both versions of J'Accuse? There are no such plans in public view, though one can dream... that perhaps whatever attention the broadcast of Joe Dante's Homecoming on this weekend's Showtime Masters of Horror broadcast may garner will awaken fresh interest in its wellspring, J'Accuse.
Stranger things have happened, but don't hold your breath.
In the meantime, scour the internet to get your hands on a copy, any copy, of either version of J'Accuse. The sound remake is particularly stunning, a heartfelt, fierce howl of rage against war in all its bastard incarnations, against those mortal leaders, profiteers and politicians who recklessly send generation after generation to their deaths. It is as timely as ever, and as terribly relevent.
Though Gance's flailing against war in the face of Hitler's forces in 1937 was futile, there's no resisting the power of his climactic passage. I defy you to tell me that goosebumps don't surface, that the hair at the nape of your neck doesn't rise, as Diaz cries out to his long-dead comrades of WW1, "Your sacrifices were in vain. I shall not yield to war. I return to you! Refuse. Help me!"; the tracking shot of the expansive soldier's cemetary, the names on the graves glowing; the speed of the film shifting into overdrive as the very elements accelerate.
"Soldiers of the Great War, I call you," Diaz cries, "Soldaten des Weltkriegs..." A crucifixion statue opens an eye, its unyielding stone becomes supple and begins to writhe, as storms descend and birds scatter, a flower whithers in seconds; the acres of crosses dissolve.
"My twelve million friends killed in the war, I call you," Diaz shouts -- and the dead indeed rise, and begin their march...
(Note: In 1991-92, I wrote a two-part article on both versions of Abel Gance's J'Accuse that was published in Charles Kilgore's beloved Ecco magazine. I have not referred to that ms. for this blog posting, but I am revising and expanding that article for publication in one of my book projects in 2006.)