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The Criterion Collection presents
Raymond Bernard (Wooden Crosses, Les Miserables) (1932-34)

First soldier: Where are you going, little lambs?
Second soldier: To the slaughterhouse.

- Unknown actors, Wooden Crosses

Review By: Jeff Wilson  
Published: November 02, 2007

Stars: Pierre Blanchar, Gabriel Gabrio, Charles Vanel, Harry Baur, Florelle
Director: Raymond Bernard

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for war violence
Release Date: July 17, 2007
UPC: 715515025324
Genre: foreign


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A BB+B+ D+

DVD Review

The previous sets from Criterion's Eclipse line were all well and good, and brought viewers some high quality material, but with set four, featuring director Raymond Bernard, is where the series really does what I consider a true service, as it brings a previously forgotten director into some small measure of the spotlight again. French director Bernard worked from 1919 up through the late 1950s, but I presume that his work has gone little noticed outside France. This set works to rectify that, with two of Bernard's 1930s works: the anti-war drama Wooden Crosses and the epic, three-part adaptation of Les Miserables.

Wooden Crosses is rightly described as a French answer to All Quiet on the Western Front, as both tell the story of a young recruit, from initial enlistment to his ultimate fate. By this time, the story of young Gilbert Demachy (Pierre Blanchar), is going to come as no surprise whatsoever; we can already see where it's heading from the first sequence. That said, Bernard has still crafted a gripping film, focusing on the absurdity of the French military, who insist on parades and inspections while leaving men to die in a trench that everyone knows the Germans are planning to detonate a mine under. Bernard's skill in filming the war sequences are what really make the film impress, at first glance. For a film from 1933, I was astonished at how good the fighting scenes were, including one shot where I'd love to know how he prevented the actors from being blown to bits. The final scene, with Gilbert wounded on the battlefield, could have been better acted perhaps, but it remains a stark image of a truly insane part of history.

Les Miserables has been adapted many times, but Bernard's 1934 version, spread over three films (each roughly 85 minutes), gives the story a chance to breathe, a luxury most feature film adaptations cannot accomodate. Bernard's assured direction, coupled with solid performances and lavish design, make this among the absolute best adaptations of Hugo's masterpiece. Harry Baur (credited as Harry-Baur), is Jean Valjean, the convict cruelly locked away for 19 years after stealing some bread. Valjean's redemption at the hands of a kindly priest may save his soul, but it further condemns him to pursuit by the overzealous policeman Javert (Charles Vanel). Valjean's struggle to stay free and do good is played out against a backdrop of revolution, as an idealistic group of students seek to liberate the people from their brutal existence.

As a story, Les Miserables is a stone cold, can't miss propsect. You have a wronged fugitive on the run, an implacable enemy, redemption, a love story, revolution, and still more. If there's a weakness here, it's in the characters, who are often little more than cyphers. Marius and Cosette are token lovers, with no distinguishing characteristics. But my main complaint about the performances must be Harry Baur. Most reviews I've seen praise Baur to the heavens, but I just can't see it. He looks great in the part, and you can read into his hardnened visage some of the agony Valjean must have suffered during his stretch in prison, but his acting is almost nonexistent. Speaking in a monotone and rarely changing your facial expression doesn't really equate a great performance to me. Charles Vanel makes for a good Javert; he's not evil, simply too dedicated to the rule of law and too lacking in common humanity, something he discovers too late.

I feel like a broken record in regard to these Eclipse releases, but they really are excellent in what they aim to do, which is to either introduce relatively unknown directors to the masses, or get lesser-known works of well-known directors out there. The former is probably more of a service to film fans, and this set more than lives up to the ideal.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Both projects have inherent limitations in their source material that no transfer is going to hide; missing frames, sporadic sound issues, and the like are simply a fact here. The transfers themselves are very good, with solid detail and contrast. The optional English subtitles are clean and error-free.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoFrenchno


Audio Transfer Review: The original French mono tracks were cleaned up when the films were restored in Europe, and both present no major problems, though Les Miserables does have the occasional issue with drop outs, but this is nothing to hinder the viewing experience dramatically.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 74 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: Scanavo variant
3 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Per the Eclipse model, none beyond jacket essays, which do provide some valuable background, given Bernard's relative obscurity.

Extras Grade: D+

 

Final Comments

This is a set that should appeal to any number of groups, be they French film fans, Les Miz groupies, war films, whatever. Bernard's directorial skills make the material rise above its limitations and reveal him as a forgotten master.

 


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