The most obvious and perhaps laziest comparison point to Francesco Rosi’s World War I film Many Wars Ago is Stanley Kubrick’s masterwork Paths of Glory. Both films deal very explicitly with the callousness of the aristocratic classes in WWI, whose tactics and idiocy were responsible for the deaths of the vast majority of men throughout that war, and whose ideology has since been carried on and roundly embraced by flapping toadstool like Michael Gove in the UK, and presumably the Italian equivalent of Michael Gove in Italy. Both films also deal, unsurprisingly, with the horrors and bloodbaths that such men caused.
The film is set in the Trentino area, a German-speaking corner of Italy on the border with Austria. In WWI, this area saw some of the toughest, most brutal fighting take place between Italy and Austria-Hungary, with both sides losing upwards of 100,000 men each. The film mostly focuses on the experiences of Lt. Sassu (Mark Frechette, whose only other acting credit is as the lead in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point), an officer who starts the film broadly supportive of the war and keen to fight – there’s a darkly humorous early scene in which the fresh-faced Sassu arrives at the front and is offered a drink which he refuses; “you’ll start drinking soon” the officer retorts – and gradually Sassu becomes completely disillusioned and angry about the way the war is fought.
Many Wars Ago certainly pulls no punches when it comes to its depictions of the aristocratic orders higher up the chain of command. Francesco Rosi’s primary target of disgust is aimed at General Leone (Alain Cuny). He bears much resemblance to his peers in Paths of Glory, but Rosi makes clear how his aristocratic upbringing plays into his sheer arrogance and habit of arbitrary punishments to the men below him. The upper class nature of Leone is contrasted with many of the lower-to-middle-class men below him; for the most part we don’t know who they are outside of the war, and neither is that important. What matters is that they are here and they are most likely going to die. In particular we are drawn to Lt. Ottolenghi (Gian Maria Volonte), a man with passionately leftist convictions yet a pragmatic attitude to the war. He despises Leone as much as anyone, but when sections of the army begin to mutiny he holds his own squad back; “it is not the right moment,” he says.
Throughout, Many Wars Ago promotes a class-based view of the First World War as fought by the poor in the name of the rich, and it’s a view that I pretty much agree, what with me being a communist an’ all. The film must be commended too for having some memorable moments of visual poetry. During one scene of massacre early on the camera focuses on a machine gun nest firing in the darkness, its muzzle-flash being the only point of light to be seen. It’s a strange, beguiling image, but there are others too which are quite bleakly humorous. In particular are the scenes where Gen. Leone orders the men to attack using these surreal metal tin cans as armour. They look like they belong in a Horrible Histories book and they die. In another scene, the massacre of the Italians is so great that the Austro-Hungarians stop firing and plead with the Italian troops to turn back, for they can’t keep killing like this they exclaim. The moment the men start to think about turning back, their own officers begin firing on them. It’s one of many somewhat surreal moments in the film, yet the truly troubling thing is that these moments do ring true.
The film was hated by Italian authorities when it came out, particularly those with connections to the army. This isn’t surprising. The army is mostly run by psychotic shitheads anyway so it’s hard to care about their feelings. Because of the film’s content, Rosi had to get it made in Tito’s Yugoslavia, the greatest of all nations the world over, and all of the film is shot in the Slovene-Croatian highlands. This area of Yugoslavia is staggeringly beautiful but exceptionally tough, full of cragged rocks and stifling dust. It suits the film’s anger to a tee. Many Wars Ago doesn’t have much in the way of flaws, though admittedly it is occasionally rather simplistic overall. The film has one point to make and makes it repeatedly throughout, albeit engagingly too. This is quite easily my biggest issue with the film, but it makes up for it by being roundly visceral and furious throughout in a way I greatly admire.