There are war films, and then there is Many Wars Ago.
From director Francesco Rosi (Salvatore Giuliano, Hands Over The City, The Moment Of Truth), this decidedly anti-war picture is a true masterpiece of this type of film, and yet, it’s as unsung a film as you’re bound to see. A rarely discussed gem of the genre, this classic sets us in the middle of World War I, but on a rarely discussed front. Dumping the viewer in Northern Italy on the Italian/Austrian front, the film introduces us to a division commander named General Leone, who has an interesting view on war and his soldiers. Using truly archaic battle techniques against Austrian soldiers armed to the teeth, dissent amongst his soldiers begins to mount, ultimately culminating in one of the most interesting meditations on the absurdity of war and the purpose of going to battle.
Our eyes and ears for the majority of the film? The picture stars Mark Frechette as lieutenant Sassu, a man who begins to have his view on battle and the true meaning of war change over the span of the picture. Very much similar in content and intent to a film like Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory, the film takes a distinctly more realistic and raw route to tell this tale of war and all of its pure stupidity. Take Kubrick’s film, and toss it in a blender with a film like Moment Of Truth, give it a good mix, and what would result is something akin to this unforgettable war epic.
While the cast here is absolutely top notch, director Francesco Rosi takes this narrative and turns it into an aesthetic experience unlike any the war film genre has to offer. Often, and rightly so, compared to the previously mentioned Kubrick film, this film is like its angrier, experimental cousin. With muddy and earthy photography, the film holds within it an oppressive sense of style, often expanded upon by Rosi’s unflinching camera work. With surreal battle sequence (think of the shot of soldiers being gunned down while charging covered in medieval masks and armor), the film is both troublingly realistic and yet carries within its DNA such stylistic absurdity born out of the themes that it attempts to mine narratively that the film itself becomes almost an entirely aesthetic experience. The script is fine, but truthfully, the film is as much a visually, truly cinematic, experience as a war film has ever been.
And in that experience, some rather intriguing themes are able to be mined. Ostensibly a film about war as nothing more than the purest form of human hubris and absurdity, the film uses the superficial idea of these soldiers going into war using medieval weapons and tactics, to hint at just how disturbing war truly is. Toss in the idea of these soldiers becoming self aware of this absurdity, and you have one of the more entrancing looks at the horrors of war you’re bound to ever see.
It also does help to have a cast as great as the one assembled here. Leading the way is Mark Frechette as lieutenant Sassu, and while much of the dramatic weight is held on his shoulders, it is a performance that proves those are some sturdy shoulders to lead on. It’s a layered and deeply nuanced turn, as is the one from Investigation Of A Citizen Above Suspicion star Gian Maria Volonte. A decidedly lower key performance than the Day-Lewis esque monster of a performance he gives in that Petri picture, Volonte steals the show here and proves him to be one of the most underrated thespians of his day. Alain Cuny helps round out a cast of great thespians all working at the heights of their respective powers.
And thankfully, those powers are all highlighted here via a brilliant new Blu-ray from Raro Video. Finally bringing this film to light on home video here stateside, Raro Video out does themselves here, breathing new life into the film via a great new restoration both visually and audibly. The packaging is great, and even down to the subtitles, this release is absolutely gorgeous. There’s a great booklet looking into the film’s production, and the aforementioned restoration is highlighted thanks to a supplement rarely used, the good, old fashioned, restoration demonstration. It’s a really exciting look at not only the evolution of this film over time, but the power of some tender love and cinematic care, that it’s a supplement that really should be utilized more often, and done to perfection here. Other than that, Rosi is interviewed here, and gives some much needed insight into this deliciously dense and layered war film, a picture that has seemingly been forgotten over the 40-plus years since its debut, and deserves to become the genre-defining war film that it truly is.