Entertainment Magazine

Many Wars Ago

Posted on the 02 September 2016 by Christopher Saunders

Many Wars Ago

"A man who has seen the true face of war does not think highly of it."

Francesco Rosi's Many Wars Ago (1970) depicts Italy's traumatic First World War experience, losing over 600,000 men to weather, avalanches, incompetent generals and Austrian bullets. Rosi captures its self-destructive stupidity with an anger exceeding better-known Great War movies.
Newly minted Lieutenant Sassu (Mark Frechette) arrives on the battlefield for the Battle of Asiago. He finds the Italian army reeling from General Leone's (Alain Cuny) poor leadership, mixing harsh discipline with tactical ineptitude. After several defeats the soldiers are near-mutiny, with Lieutenant Ottolenghi (Gian Maria Volonte) reluctant to discipline them. Eventually Leone pushes his men too far, with tragic consequences for all.
Using a memoir by Emilio Lussu, a writer who became a principled antifascist, Many Wars Ago follows the contours of many WWI movies. Rosi and his cowriters Raffaele La Capria and Tonino Guerra alternate battles with soldiers' suffering and poor generalship. Leone urges bayonet charges against machine guns and artillery, oblivious to mountainous casualties. Every battle is a preordained massacre: eventually, the Austrians grow sick of the carnage, urging the Italians to turn back.
Many Wars Ago
But Many Wars Ago far exceeds Paths to Glory in anti-military outrage. Incompetence extends beyond poor leadership: troops attack without artillery support and wear cardboard shoes from crooked contractors. The strangest scene shows Leone outfitting a sapper squad in crude armor, hoping to deflect bullets as they cut Austrian wire. Lumbering across No Man's Land, they're gunned down in seconds. Leone pitilessly orders the infantry forward anyway, with predictable results.
Early, Leone orders the execution of a scout warning of an Austrian ambush, averted only by Ottolenghi's quick thinking. Later he forces his men to expose themselves to sniper fire, branding them heroes as they fall! Officers call wounded men malingers, making them limp from hospital to firing squad, order decimations after failed attacks or have snipers shoot deserters. Abstractions of King and Country ring hollow before this fratricidal violence.
Films like Paths of Glory and All Quiet on the Western Front content themselves with noble pacifist sentiments. Rosi shows Italian troops mutinying, destroying their rifles, refusing to attack and toasting the General's death. Lieutenant Ottolenghi fights gallantly but sides with his weary men, refusing orders to suppress them. Initially gung ho, Sassu's quickly disillusioned enough to surpass even Ottolenghi's insubordination.
Many Wars Ago
Rosi's episodic structure precludes a strong narrative but the individual scenes are striking. His battles are staged on colossal scale, with handheld camera and zoom lens adding chaotic realism. An early battle takes place at night, with Rosi using strobe lighting and blaring, discordant bugles to terrifying effect. A deserter flees across the snow, shot in the back by his own colleagues. Even more harrowing is a firing squad scene; one victim wrenches free of his stake, is shot by an officer and dragged back into line. Rosi spares us few horrors.
Mark Frechette (Zabriskie Point) is the nominal lead, but his character is a bland neophyte. Gian Maria Volonte is far more impressive, channeling his intensity into a compassionate, likeable character. Alain Cuny's General Leone is pompous without seeming a caricature, while Franco Graziosi's (Duck, You Sucker!) martinet major is even worse. Daria Niccolodi (the future Mrs. Dario Argento) appears briefly as a nurse.
All Italy gained from World War I was a pyrrhic victory, winning barely enough land to bury their dead. This led to backlash and disillusionment, with battles between left and right culminating in Mussolini's March on Rome. Many Wars Ago shows how it came about: its crushing, nihilistic despair marks one of the very best WWI movies.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog